Prince's half-sister loses copyright case

By STEVE WHITWORTH   |   May 3, 1989
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ST. LOUIS -- A federal appeals court Wednesday dismissed the appeal of pop star Prince's half-sister, who had claimed the flamboyant singer used lyrics from her copyrighted song in one of his recordings.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on an appeal brought by Lorna Nelson against Prince; her brother, Duane Nelson; her father, John Nelson; and PRN Productions Inc. of Chanhassen, Minn.

Lorna Nelson is the half-sister of Prince Rogers Nelson, who has recorded a string of hit records under the name of Prince and has starred in several movies.

Lorna Nelson sued Prince, the other family members and their company in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, charging the singer's song, 'U Got the Look' was an infringement of her copyrighted song, 'What's Cooking in This Book.'

The woman also asked for an accounting under state law for compensation that John Nelson received from Prince and PRN for the use of lyrics that she allegedly co-wrote.

U.S. District Judge David Doty granted a motion by the defendants to dismiss Lorna Nelson's complaint based on his determination that no substantial similarity existed between her lyrics and the lyrics of Prince's song. Doty also dismissed her request for the accounting of John Nelson's compensation for lack of jurisdiction.

Doty had denied the woman's request to take a deposition from Prince pending his ruling on the motion to dismiss.

On appeal, Lorna Nelson argued the district court made a mistake in determining no copyright infringement had occurred and claimed the district court abused its discretion in denying her request that Prince give a deposition.

The defendants had stipulated to Lorna Nelson's ownership of a valid copyright and to their access to her song. The appeals court said that left the issue of 'substantial similarity' as the only element in dispute.

Lorna Nelson attached copies of her lyric and Prince's lyric to her complaint. She alleged similarities between several portions of the lyric.

In one verse of Lorna's song, her lyric was 'What's cooking in this book, what's cooking in this book.' A verse in Prince's song was 'U sho 'nuf do be cooking in my book.'

The appeals court disagreed with the woman's argument, saying the trial court properly had addressed the issue of substantial similarity.

'In this case, the trial court carefully studied the lyrics involved and determined that reasonable minds could not differ as to the absence of substantial similarity,' the appeals court wrote.

'The trial judge could properly determine the matter of substantial similarity as a matter of law and did so by granting defendants' motion to dismiss the copyright count on the ground that it failed to state a claim for infringing use. On review, this court cannot conclude that a mistake has been committed by such ruling.'

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