Lizzo's 'Truth Hurts' Saga: Can You Sue Over a Copied Tweet?

Lizzo performs at Outside Lands 2018 in San Francisco. (Estefany Gonzalez)

Without a doubt, the most quoted line from Lizzo's No. 1 hit "Truth Hurts" is its scorching opener: "Just took a DNA test, turns out I'm 100 percent that bitch." Gina Rodriguez sings along to it in her latest Netflix rom-com; it's fueled a long-running TikTok meme; fans put it in their Instagram captions and scream it back to Lizzo during sold-out stops of her current tour.

Here's the thing: Lizzo didn't write the line.

Instead, it traces back to a viral 2017 tweet by British singer Mina Lioness, whom Lizzo is now crediting as a co-writer on the track. After first denying that Lioness' tweet was the inspiration, Lizzo conceded that she'd seen a meme that used the phrase. As tweets go viral and continue to influence pop culture, the saga points to the misconceptions many people have about social media and intellectual property.

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Contrary to popular belief, tweets are subject to copyright, but only if they possess enough of a degree of originality—which would be determined by a court if Lioness were to pursue legal action, which she threatened before Lizzo gave her songwriting credit. (Currently, Lizzo is embattled in a separate lawsuit against Jeremiah Raisen, Justin Raisen and Justin Rothman over "Truth Hurts" authorship.)

"The court would look at: what was the intent?" says Lisa Alter, a copyright lawyer whose clients include numerous Grammy winners and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. "Was it used in its entirety? Was it used in a transformative use, which is a subjective, case-by-case evaluation to determine whether it was fair use? Is Lizzo getting commercial benefit from it? ... You can't predict which way a court would come out on that question."

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So is the "100 percent that bitch" line original enough to win a copyright suit? Experts aren't so sure. Ben Depoorter, a copyright law professor from UC Hastings, points out a major barrier: short phrases are excluded from copyright protection as a way to ensure that intellectual property law isn't used to stifle free speech. "Even if it’s particularly novel, ingenious or interesting wordplay, a short sentence in and of itself does not entitle you to copyright protection," he says. (Still, Lizzo recently filed an application to trademark the phrase "100 percent that bitch" to use on merch.)

Alter says that Lizzo's decision to give Lioness songwriting credit could have been a preemptive strike against a potential lawsuit—and from judgment in the court of public opinion. "Mina was saying in her statements that she didn't have the resources, she's a poor girl from London," Alter says. "Lizzo [may have] wanted to ensure that in the public opinion she was doing an equitable thing."

As the barrier between pop culture and social media becomes more permeable, tweets and social media posts increasingly become fodder for commercial works. For instance, when Beyoncé credited Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig as a songwriter on "Hold Up" from Lemonade, she also gave a songwriting credit to the members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose lyrics from "Maps" Koenig interpolated in a tweet that later became the Beyoncé lyric.

"Songs become tweets, tweets become songs - it's the way of the world," Koenig tweeted in 2016.

But as far as artists who believe they can take freely from social media posts? "There's this perception of social media being free, so the rules of copyright don't apply, and that's just not the case," Alter says.

Even though tweets are often shared as decontextualized screen shots, often with the author's name cropped out, Alter advises artists and musicians to track down the source of their inspiration and give credit when possible. "[The 'Truth Hurts' lyric] clearly was something that was identified with someone who is a performer," says Alter. "Mina is a performer in her own right, she is findable. And to the extent that there was any question on Lizzo's part that this was a creation of Mina's, she should have reached out to her before using it. But that's to be on the safest side."

Still, for many, attempting to recoup damages from a stolen tweet is a risky, costly and time-consuming endeavor. And as long as social media provides a platform for creators with few resources to grow followings, their content is at risk of being co-opted by brands or more successful artists.

There is a positive side to this, though, Depoorter points out: Though the law may not always work in social media users' favor, the ability to shame someone on Twitter certainly does.

"The law doesn't do a lot of lifting," he says. "But the social aspects of being called out for doing something unfair even though it’s not illegal are quite severe."

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