Casey Dienel, aka White Hinterland vs Justin Bieber, Skrillex and others
2016 • Settled • USA, District of Tennessee, Nashville Division
Claimant Work: Ring The Bell
Defendant Work: Sorry
Artist Casey Dienel, who also records under the name White Hinterland brought a case against Justin Bieber in May 2016, alleging that Bieber's 2015 hit single ‘Sorry’ copied Dienel's vocal loop from her 2014 song ‘Ring the Bell’. The allegedly copied segment can be heard in the first five seconds of each song.
The writ names as defendants the five co-writers: Justin Bieber, Julia Michaels, Justin Tranter, Sonny Moore (aka Skrillex) and Michael Tucker (aka BloodPop). Additionally named are the four publishers, Warner, Kobalt, Universal and Bieber Time Publishing, and the record label and distributor Def Jam Recordings and Universal Music Group.
Dienel's complaint stated that she "created, edited, revised and composed the original and unique vocal riff featured in Ring The Bell" in 2012, and calls the riff a "distinct and integral element" of the song, which was released early in 2014. Dienel's only direct comment on the case, from a Facebook post, is reproduced in full below.
The complaint calls Bieber a "superstar and perhaps the world's most popular artist". According to NBC News the suit claims an unspecified amount in damages for "lost profits, lost opportunities, loss of goodwill, and lost publicity."
Co-writer and co-producer Skrillex was quick to respond with a twitter posting demonstrating how the Bieber riff was independently created by manipulating a female backing vocal improvisation sung by co-writer Julia Michaels. The vocal was originally sung in G major, then pitch-shifted down four semitones to Eb major, to fit the key of Sorry, and further pitch-shifted up an octave to the higher pitch.
Dienel's full Facebook post (now removed, but available at The Pitchfork) reads as follows:
As many of you that follow my career and work have already recognized, Justin Bieber’s song “Sorry” copies the vocal riff prominently featured in my song “Ring the Bell.” The writers, producers, and performers of “Sorry” did not obtain a license for this exploitation of my work, nor did they obtain or seek my permission. Yesterday afternoon, I filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement against Justin Bieber and the other responsible parties. After this post, I intend to leave the subject matter of the lawsuit in the hands of my lawyers and the legal system. However, because I do not take the act of suing lightly, I want to take this opportunity to briefly explain my decision to those of you who are connected to me through family, friendship, and music. Creating original and unique music is my life’s passion, but it is challenging and time consuming. I poured my blood, sweat, and tears into writing and producing “Ring the Bell,” and I am proud of the finished product, which Rolling Stone listed as one of its “favorite songs, albums, and videos.” Throughout my career, I have worked very hard to preserve my independence and creative control, thus it came as a shock to hear my work used and exploited without permission. Like most artists that sample music, Bieber could have licensed my song for use in “Sorry.” But he chose not to contact me. After the release of “Sorry,” my lawyers sent Bieber a letter regarding the infringement, but Bieber’s team again chose to ignore me. I offered Bieber’s team an opportunity to have a private dialogue about the infringement, but they refused to even acknowledge my claim, despite the obviousness of the sample. Justin Bieber is the world’s biggest artist, and I’m sure that he and his team will launch a full attack against me. But, in the end, I was left with no other option. I believe I have an obligation to stand up for my music and art. Thank you in advance for your support. Casey Dienel (White Hinterland)
Case for infringement
The complaint claims that Bieber and his co-writers "all had access to and . . . were familiar with Plaintiff’s Ring the Bell due to the widespread commercial release of Ring the Bell, the music press’s coverage and reviews of Plaintiff’s Ring the Bell.
It further claims that:
- the defendants "literally sampled Plaintiff's Ring the Bell"
- the similarity "surpasses the realm of generic coincidence and independent creation"
- both songs "feature breath-like sounds to complement the vocal riff"
- both songs feature similar instruments
- both songs are in the same key (Eb) and the riff is at the same pitch
- both songs start with the riff
- the bass line of Sorry is derived from the vocal riff of Ring the Bell
Case against infringement
No direct proof of access to the Ring the Bell is offered - the access claims are all circumstantial.
The claim of unlawful sampling of the sound recording was proven to be false by a twitter video which showed how the Bieber riff was independently created by manipulating an improvised harmony vocal line.
The claim that the bass line of Sorry is "derived from" the vocal riff of Ring the Bell is unfounded and highly tenuous, even going so far as to claim that it "provides the structure and creative spine" for Sorry. The vocal riff follows the ascending notes Bb C Eb F, and the Sorry bass line notes Ab C Bb simply follow the common chords IV vi and V of the root key of Eb major. The bass line of Ring the Bell follows the common chords Ab Eb (IV I) of the root key of Eb major.
The strongest argument against infringement would be that a simple four-note recurring riff is unprotectable, particularly when the notes are commonplace - four rising notes from a major scale, the fifth, sixth, eighth and ninth. It would be easy to find examples of this sequence of notes in classical music from three hundred years ago.
Ring The Bell
(Dienel) © Dienelatron/District 6 Music Publishing Ltd. Recording by White Hinterland ℗ 2014 Dead Oceans.
(Michaels/Tranter/Bieber/Tucker/Moore) © Warner/Chappell North America Ltd/Universal/MCA Music Ltd/Imagem Music/Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd. Recording by Justin Bieber ℗ 2015, Def Jam Recordings.
TMZ reported in December 2017 that Dienel had filed papers to dismiss the case.
Presumably Dienel's lawyers concluded that, in proving that Bieber's riff wasn't in fact an unlawful sample of Dienel's song, their case was weakened considerably. There is still clearly a musical link between the two, but one that could be argued to be a coincidence, or that the Dienel riff was unprotectable.
It's possible that a financial agreement was reached to halt legal procedings, but nothing has been reported.
Case referenced in Guardian article Has Pop Finally Run Out Of Tunes? by Peter Robinson, 13 April 2017.
BBC Newsbeat article from May 2016 which links to the videos of both songs.
IP Kat article on the case by Emma Perot 31 May 2016 considering what Dienel would have to do to prove infringement.
The full Dienel complaint document is available here.