Cape Town photographer challenges the copyright on Elton John’s song Nikita
I wrote that famous Elton John song, Nikita!
Guy Hobbs, a photographer from Cape Town, has recently filed court proceedings based on copyright infringement in a US District Court against Sir Elton John, Bernie Taupin (Sir Elton’s song writing partner and lyricist) and their company Big Pig Music.
“Hobbs claims that the lyrics of a song that he wrote, entitled Natasha, was copied in Sir Elton John’s song Nikita. Hobbs claims that the lyrics of his song were sent to a number of music publishers, including Big Pig Music, in 1984. He received no feedback from the music companies and decided to pursue a career as a photographer instead,” says Nishan Singh, partner at Adams & Adams.
The song Nikita was included in Sir Elton John’s album Ice on Fire, which was released in 1985. The song achieved success in many countries and was charted number three on the UK Singles Chart and also made the top 10 in the US Charts.
But why did Hobbs waited more than two decades before taking any action? Singh says Hobbs claims that the delay in bringing these proceedings was due to the fact that he first heard the lyrics of the song Nikita in 2001, and he then attempted to settle the matter because litigation is expensive. Sir Elton John, Bernie Taupin and Big Pig Music dismiss Hobbs’ claims as “baseless”.
According to Singh, in order to succeed with his case, Hobbs needs to prove that he is the owner of the copyright that subsists in the original lyrics of the song Natasha. Hobbs claims that in 1982, he was a photographer on a Russian cruise liner, in which he met and had a romantic relationship with a Soviet waitress, called Natasha. When the relationship ended, the heartbroken Hobbs wrote the song Natasha, which was about an impossible love affair between a Western man and a Russian woman during the Cold War.
Hobbs claims that he could prove that he owned the copyright in the lyrics of the song Natasha, as he has unopened, self-addressed, registered letters containing the song’s lyrics that are dated 10 May 1983 and 11 November 1983. “The registered letters may assist Hobbs in proving that he is the owner of the copyright in the lyrics of the song Natasha. The registered letters would be dated, and if these dates are before the date on which the Nikita song was written, Hobbs would have a foot in the door,” comments Singh.
In addition to proving ownership, Hobbs must prove that a substantial portion of the lyrics of the Natasha song was copied. “If Hobbs can prove that an essential part of his song was copied, for example the chorus, he may succeed with his case. Sir Elton John’s Nikita song has earned millions since its release date, so if Hobbs is successful with his case, he would be entitled to a portion of these earnings,” says Singh.
Singh concludes: “so the moral of this story is, make sure you are able to prove that you own copyright in a particular material. In South Africa, copyright exists automatically, provided that the material is original and reduced to material form. The difficulty lies in proving that you created the material on a particular date, so it is advisable to adopt the Hobbs’ approach and send a registered letter to yourself, or simply email the material to yourself.”