By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - Singers Justin Bieber and Usher were ordered by a U.S. appeals court on Thursday to face a $10 million lawsuit claiming they illegally copied parts of a song composed by two Virginia songwriters.
By a 3-0 vote, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond revived a May 2013 lawsuit by Devin Copeland, an R&B singer known as De Rico, and his songwriting partner Mareio Overton, saying a lower court judge was wrong to dismiss it.
The plaintiffs claimed that three versions of the song "Somebody to Love" recorded by Bieber, Usher or both shared the beat pattern, time signature, and similar chords and lyrics with their song with the same name.
"After listening to the Copeland song and the Bieber and Usher songs as wholes, we conclude that their choruses are similar enough and also significant enough that a reasonable jury could find the songs intrinsically similar," Circuit Judge Pamela Harris wrote for the appeals court.
Among the other defendants were publishers such as Vivendi SA's Universal Music Publishing Group and Sony Corp's Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
Defense lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The plaintiffs' lawyer did not immediately respond to similar requests.
One version of "Somebody to Love," recorded by Bieber and credited to him as a co-writer, peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2010.
The plaintiffs alleged that music scouts had played their song, which was written in 2008, for Usher, who liked what he heard and then brought it to Bieber.
U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen dismissed the lawsuit in March 2014, saying no reasonable jury could find copyright infringement.
Harris, though, said even the lyric "somebody to love" was delivered in an "almost identical rhythm and a strikingly similar melody."
The judge also said it did not matter that the Bieber and Usher versions qualified as "dance pop, perhaps with hints of electronica" while the Copeland version was "squarely" R&B.
She said to rule otherwise could give artists too wide a berth to profit from others' songs, such as through unlicensed reggae or heavy metal versions of the Beatles' "Hey Jude" that had a different "concept and feel."
The 4th Circuit returned the case to Allen for further proceedings.
The case is Copeland et al v. Bieber et al, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-1427.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bernard Orr)