Friday, October 3, 2014

So you are in a good mood and you are singing a tune and before you know it you are tapping a good familiar beat on the table to it and then making up some story to sing with it. Hey! You have instantly become a songwriter within 20 minutes. This happens more often than not these days. I think it could be because we are all exposed to more free music from any age on any device we have. Years ago you had to actually buy a record to listen to it many times. Now not only can you easily hear any song you want to now, you can also hear the song being performed by many artists on diverse instrumentation. At that point, whose song is it ? Should all music be at folk status or can someone or some legacy of someone still claim ownership of a tune or beat or set of words?

Is it possible that the song you just created you actually stole from another artist? This issue keeps entertainment lawyers busy and their legal defense arguments are becoming more and more strange. Recently Robin Thick had to defend his hit single but in his own defense he said that he did not really write it and that he was drunk and high throughout the creative process and yes that can be submitted as a legal defense. He is being accused of taking credit for a song originally written and recorded by Marvin Gay. Is it straight up stealing?

The new song is Blurred Lines also produced by Pharrell Williams. Marvin Gay’s 1977 hit called Got To Give It Up at least has the same distinctive beat and the case is currently being argued in court. Robin is quick to give credit to Marvin Gay as his source of inspiration for his song but not exactly willing to give up money to the estate of the deceased Marvin Gay. To simply say you were high and drunk during the recording process in a deposition is kind of a week defense on Robin’s part. Pharrell Williams in his deposition claims that the song was 80% complete by the time Robin showed up to sing the vocals in the recording studio. It sounds like a soap opera story on a afternoon network show but it does involve millions of dollars in question of ownership in the battle over plagiarism in popular music.

This is not a new issue just an increasingly more argued issue maybe because more people have more access to other people’s music these days. Johnny Cash’s song Folsom Prison Blues cost him $75,000 for borrowing the melody from the lesser known song Crescent City Blues. John Lennon settled out of court for the Beatles song Come Together. It’s beat and song structure echoed Chuck  Berry’s song You Can’t Catch Me. The Ghost Buster’s Theme Song that was nominated for an Oscar earned a lawsuit from Huey Lewis for it’s striking resemblance to I Want A New Drug.  Eventually they also settled out of court.

The stakes could be even higher for the Blurred Lines lawsuit because this single sold some 175,000 copies in just the first week of release. It sold about 3/4ths of a million to date. Marvin Gay’s family stands to receive a percentage of those sales. Whatever the outcome, there is plenty of money here to go around. The question is over aesthetics. Robin’s attorneys claim that a song being reminiscent of a sound is not copyright infringement. The intent in producing “Blurred Lines” was to invoke an era.  Pharrell argues that similarities in sound is just a coincidence. Silk and rayon are two different fabrics that just feel the same.

Katy Perry’s Roar reminds people of Sara Bareillis’s  hit Brave but they are not suing each other. Lady Gaga’s Born This Way sounds like Madonna’s Express Yourself but she isn’t suing either. The fate of Blurred Lines is now up to the courts. Dot the Gayes own just the composition and not the recording? Do old artists just smell money and rush in to make their infringement demands? Regardless of the decision in this case , it could have an impact in the troubling music industry. It is scheduled to go to trial next February.

So, the next time you are singing a tune, tap a beat to it and make up a few words to it. Be careful if you dare to  make a dime from it. Someone else probably  got to your song before you and wants that dime.

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