By Raisa Bruner
Updated: October 25, 2019 3:42 PM ET

“Truth Hurts,” singer-flutist-rapper Lizzo‘s 2017 sleeper hit, recently became Billboard‘s longest-running #1 rap song by a female artist, topping the Hot 100 list for seven weeks.

But with its newfound top-tier status has come increased scrutiny — and legal action. Like with many hits these days, from Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’s “Blurred Lines” to Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” the question of authorship and copyright infringement in music has become muddy. And as the cases have multiplied, many are jumping in to claim a piece of a song’s pie. Here’s what to know about Lizzo’s ‘Truth Hurts.’

Who are the people involved in the “Truth Hurts” case?

In the case of “Truth Hurts,” three main individuals have made headlines with an interest in establishing themselves on the songwriting credits. They include Mina Lioness, a singer who once tweeted the song’s now-infamous lyric, “I just took a DNA test and I’m 100% that b-tch,” in the spring of 2017, and two songwriting brothers, Justin and Jeremiah Raisen, who wrote a song demo called “Healthy” with Lizzo during a 2017 session.

What’s at stake?

Song royalties. With a big hit comes ongoing returns on the song’s profits. Plus, “Truth Hurts” is currently in Grammy contention.

Who may get to claim ownership of the signature ‘Truth Hurts’ lyric?

Simply put, it’s complicated. In order for someone to claim ownership of a phrase or lyric, they need to have established common law copyright over that piece of creative output. “If you draw a picture in the sand on the beach,” explains entertainment and media lawyer Jason Boyarski of New York-based firm Boyarski Fritz who have counted the Prince estate, Marc Anthony, Wycleaf Jean and Bhad Bhabie among their clients, “there’s technically a copyright for that picture. It’s creativity, it’s fixed in a medium. [It’s] common law copyright. It hasn’t been registered yet, but it could be protected.” In other words, it’s yours, and could be defensible in court if someone tried to sell it off as their own.

But it’s often harder to identify the creative distinction of a phrase. It has to meet two standards: it must rise to a “level of originality” that sets it apart, and it must have been used in the new work in a way that’s “substantially similar” to its original purpose. (For instance, you can’t just publish someone else’s photo in a book without giving them credit. But if you draw the scene depicted in that photo in a new, distinctive style and publish the drawing, then you’ve repurposed it in a way that no longer requires credit to the original photographer.) “Does a one-sentence tweet like that, as genius as the concept is, is it original enough to warrant copyright ability just as a sentence?” Boyarski said. “For a songwriter to be liable for some sort of infringement, it has to really rise to a level of really reaping where someone else has sown from an originality standpoint.”

In this case, Lioness’s claim may have held water — had she pressed it. “Had she lawyered up, there would be viable arguments on both sides,” Boyarski said; there is a case to be made in her favor for a common law copyright on the tweet’s contents. The Raisens, meanwhile, are claiming common law copyright on the lyric as it existed in the prior song they made with Lizzo; they’re arguing that the lyric as it existed in their session deserves its own form of protection, and are suggesting in social media that the melody and chords are also part of the copyright-able mix.

How has Lizzo responded?

In a tweet this week, Lizzo confirmed that she’ll be offering Lioness a songwriting credit. “I later learned that a tweet inspired the meme [that inspired the lyric],” she shared. “The creator of the tweet is the person I am sharing my success with… not these men. Period.” She then filed suit against the Raisen brothers, according to Variety, claiming harassment.

What’s next?

Either they will settle or continue to court. If it goes to court, Boyarski said the outcome is nowhere near clear; there isn’t a great deal of precedent on claims regarding lyrics, as most of the questions around songs have to do with chord progression and melody. (There may be an infinite number of ways to combine notes, Boyarski said, but only a certain number of those combinations actually sound good to regular listeners — hence the ways that new music often sounds reminiscent of what we’ve heard before, regardless of the creator’s intent.) And so “Truth Hurts” may just continue to surprise us all.

Why does this case matter?

“From a macro standpoint, the ‘Blurred Lines’ case opened the floodgates to more voluminous litigation in connection with music publishing and songwriting,” Boyarski said. “It’s very dangerous ground right now for songwriters.” What happens with “Truth Hurts” will contribute to determining how future songwriters and collaborators pursue copyright claims. And just like we’ve seen a “chilling effect” on the music industry in the post-“Blurred Lines” decision, this could have a cascading effect as well. “Anybody can make a claim,” Boyarski said. “The question is, can lyrics of themselves… have that copyright ability?” We’ll have to see how it plays out.

 

Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com.

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