Imitation might be the “sincerest form of flattery,” but it isn’t always copyright infringement.

That was the unusual message from an Illinois federal judge Thursday, as she dismissed a lawsuit accusing French Montana (Karim Kharbouch) of illegally sampling from a little-known Chicago hip hop producer on his song “Ain’t Worried About Nothin’.”

Eddie Lee Richardson – aka Hotwire The Producer – had claimed that French’s 2013 hit ripped off his instrumental song “Hood Pushin’ Weight.” But Judge Nancy L. Maldonado ruled that the superstar’s song did not technically infringe the rights owned by Richardson.

“The mere fact that the songs may share certain musical elements is simply not enough for a jury to conclude that such sampling actually occurred,” the judge wrote, ending the lawsuit.

Though she sided with French, Judge Maldonado was highly sympathetic to Richardson. She included an unusual note at the end of the ruling, stressing that it was merely a “technical win” for French — and one that he “should not claim as a substantive victory.” And she repeatedly suggested that, had Richardson secured a more complete set of intellectual property rights, the outcome might have been different.

“If it is any consolation, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the Court hopes that Richardson will not be deterred in his musical endeavors, now armed with a better understanding of copyright law,” Judge Maldonado wrote. “As it is, though, Richardson’s evidence in this particular case is insufficient to establish copyright infringement.”

Richardson sued French in 2019, claiming the star and others stole core elements from “Hood Pushin’ Weight” – an instrumental track Richardson published in 2012 on the platform SoundClick – when they wrote “Ain’t Worried About Nothin’,” which reached No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart in August 2013.

But the fatal flaw in the lawsuit, as explained by Judge Maldonado on Thursday, was that Richardson only secured a copyright registration to the song’s sound recording, and did not lock up such protection for the underlying musical composition. That means that French would only have infringed “Hood Pushin’ Weight” if he directly sampled from it, the judge said, and not if he merely made a song that included similar music elements.

“Unfortunately for Richardson, his express admission in this case that he has only a sound recording copyright, and not one for a musical composition, means that he does not have exclusive rights in the generic sounds or melodies of HPW,” the judge wrote.

If he had gone the extra step and registered for a copyright on the musical composition, Judge Maldonado said the outcome of the case “might have been very different” than Thursday’s dismissal.

“In that case, Richardson’s expert evidence as to the similarity of the ‘sounds’ or melodies of the songs likely would have been enough to send this case to trial,” the judge wrote. “But with a sound recording registration only, Richardson’s means for establishing infringement are much more limited.”

With his more restricted rights, Richardson needed to provide evidence that French or someone else involved in  “Ain’t Worried About Nothin’” directly copied his actual recording into the new song. But Judge Maldonado said the producer had “failed to do so.”

It likely won’t mean much in the wake of a failed lawsuit, but the judge said she had “great sympathy for Richardson’s situation.”

“He created HPW as a teenager, registered a copyright on his own, and brought this action seeking to protect his rights in his original work of music, as provided under the Copyright Act,” the judge wrote. “Unfortunately for Richardson, in the Copyright Act, Congress established a very firm distinction.”

“Put plainly,” the judge wrote, “Richardson cannot bring a claim for copyright infringement of his sound recording based solely on the contention that the songs sound alike.”

Attorneys for both sides did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the decision.