Blurring the Lines

Not that any money will change hands for many years yet, if ever, but today’s US Court decision that Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is a rip-off of Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give it up has been interesting for the response to the decision.

I have no personal opinion on the question. I am an admirer of Marvin Gaye’s music and thus familiar with Got to Give it up, not that I count it as anywhere near his best work, but in order to determine the extent to which I think it’s been copied would mean having to listen to Blurred Lines, which is something I have no intention of doing in this life, or indeed any others I may somehow get to experience.

Not that it may be necessary to actually compare the two recordings. Indeed, I understand that the court ruled that the Gaye family’s copyright vested only in the sheetmusic to the song, and not the recording, leading to the absurdity that the Jury’s decision was based on NOT hearing Marvin Gaye.

What’s intrigued me is the comment from one of Thicke and “co”-writer Pharrell Williams’ lawyers that this could have a ‘chilling effect on artists who wish to ‘pay homage’ to music of older generations.

My instant reaction was the purely cynical one of ‘well, yes, it is going to have an adverse effect on those who want to rip off their elders and betters’.

But as the day has gone by, there’s been widespread alarm from some unlikely sources that this will indeed prove a restriction on musicians who wish to utilise the influence of older songs and recordings in building their own music.

Let’s go back to the circumstances of the judgement. The jury listened to the Robin Thicke song (gosh, you poor poor people) and compared it to Marvin Gaye’s sheet music. Surely that implies that the jury found sufficient musical similarity between the two songs to constitute plagiarism without addressing the subject of Pharrell Williams’ stated intention to invoke Gaye’s ‘style’ and the recording’s ‘atmosphere’. Ironic, given that one report suggests that the recording does directly steal – I’m sorry, I mean ‘homage’ – actual elements of the Gaye recording.

Some of the reporting isn’t really worth the pixels it occupies: I simply refuse to take seriously the maunderings of one commentator who criticizes the Nineties’ judgement against free, unrestricted, unlicensed sampling (you know, stealing bits of other people’s actual music)  for hindering the development of hip-hop music.

In answer to this quaking-in-multiple-boots, I’d point out Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl of many a year ago, in which Joel set out to recreate the style and and sound of the Four Seasons as a tribute to them. Uptown Girl was a great song and a great recording, that wouldn’t be out of place in a set consisting of Frankie and the guys’ biggest successes, but the big thing about that was that Joel achieved this without ripping off any actual Four Seasons’ songs.

So maybe people who want to bask in the musical achievements of others ought to give thought to a bit of originality along the way.

Admittedly, the task of doing so gets harder every year. Music is inherently limited when it comes to melodious combinations of notes, and it gets harder and harder every year to avoid plagiarism of something. I’m always reminded of George Harrison and My Sweet Lord, who was sued successfully for plagiarism of The Chiffons’ He’s So Fine. The judge ruled that plagiarism had taken place, but that it was unconscious. The greatest irony about this case for me is that, in all the years and all the times I’ve listened to My Sweet Lord in the knowledge of this verdict, I still cannot hear the Chiffons in it.

As a writer, copyright is a concern of mine. In the unlikely event of anyone setting out to rip off one of my books, and the even unlikelier event of it selling like hot cakes, I think the money should be going to me, who put a lot of time and effort into the writing, as opposed to some shyster who nicks it for himself (or herself: plagiarism is an equal opportunities offence). So I’m naturally behind those who create for the first time as opposed to those who take what has been created and jiggle it about ever so slightly and call it their own. I’ve no bloody sympathy for Thicke and Williams (and I’ll no doubt have even less if I ever find myself forced to hear the bloody record). Reflecting the masters is one thing, nicking their creations another thing entirely, and until the next round in Court, you boys have been caught with your hand in the cookie jar up to the elbow.

Fellow travellers, be warned.

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