Let me set you up with a quick scenario. You have a band that is recording a single or an album. Deep into the recording process, you start tapping into the influences that made you a musician in the first place. Notice there that I said influences. Perhaps it was that Eddie Van Halen riff or Queen baseline that led you to pick up an instrument in the first place. You don’t record the guitar or bass chord directly, let’s say a variation of it that captures the feel or emotion of it. There are similarities, but honestly, there are million upon millions of songs in the world with a plethora of influences. There’s an artist out there who feels like you infringed on their song and goes in for the lawsuit accusing you of stealing. It’s a specific case where the groove in the heart can land you a lawsuit.
Tuesday, in a court room in Los Angeles, a jury was able to deliberate that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, the main engineers between the massive 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines” were guilty of infringing on the 1977 Marvin Gaye song, “Got To Give It Up”. Thus, opening up a insane can of worms in the grey area of copyright law and what is classified as credit. One might play devil’s advocate and figure that this is going to become a trend where artists are going to claim infringement on songs that have nothing to do with them. Could you imagine if Lady Gaga stated that the piano keys from a Yanni sounded too similar? Once again, just hypothetical.
The verdict was rendered by the jury looking at the sheet music from both songs from Gaye and Williams. Just the sheet music. They did not listen to each song one right after another to actually hear the similarities. Jurors who may have not actually be able to read sheet music made the deliberation from there which is what a gross peculiarity in copyright law. It’s important to note that the existing copyright law only covered “Got To Give It Up” covers the song from a composition sense and not a performance sense. The only way you would really know for sure is if you were in the studio with Marvin Gaye and the team of Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke that the time they were recording songs down to the slightest “hey, hey, hey”. How you render a verdict without listening to both songs is beyond my comprehension. Not convinced? Let’s go to door number two.
Sam Smith‘s first mega hit, “Stay With Me” was paired up with Tom Petty‘s “I Won’t Back Down” because the chorus structure was similar in nature. Totally different song content and even build up, but because of the ambiguity of copyright law, this caused for Smith to give co-writing credit to his song. Petty is on record as per Rolling Stone stating that “these things happen”. Huh? If you listen to both songs back to back, it’s hard to ignore that they are indeed similar in melody, but was Sam Smith channeling the song while he was recording “Stay With Me”? Probably not.
Let’s be real – with most music, everyone is influenced by someone. You can’t create the future without somehow referring to the past. I feel that every music artist should be properly compensated for their work, but we also should not be punished because artists add on to what someone created before us. There’s a difference between outright theft and likeness. Next thing you know, the kid that plays air guitar next to their poster in their bed room will get sued for copying the pose (maybe a tad extreme). Where musicians may have to be cautious of what they say in interviews because their musical muses may end up an unexpected partner in arms with song credit. I hope that this does not lead to an open season on creativity itself and a hard look at an outdated copyright law.