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‘Blurred Lines’ on Their Minds, Songwriters Create Nervously

15 April 2019

From The New York Times:

It’s not easy to be a songwriter in the pop world these days. Listeners rarely see your name. For anything but a giant hit, royalties from streaming are infinitesimal — and big tech companies seem to want to keep it that way.

And then there’s the shadow of “Blurred Lines.”

Four years after the copyright trial over that No. 1 song — in which Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, its primary writers, were ordered to pay more than $5 million for copying Marvin Gaye’s disco-era hit “Got to Give It Up” — the case still looms over the music industry and individual songwriters, who were left to wonder when homage bleeds into plagiarism.

Intellectual property lawyers and music executives interviewed for this article said the case had fueled a rise in copyright claims. In September, Ed Sheeran will go to court to defend “Thinking Out Loud,” a Grammy-winning song that has been accused of mimicking another Gaye classic, “Let’s Get It On.”

. . . .

The aftereffects of the “Blurred Lines” decision — which was upheld on appeal last year — have been felt most acutely by rank-and-file songwriters, who work in obscurity even as their creations propel others to stardom. The ramifications for them have been inescapable, affecting royalty splits, legal and insurance costs, and even how songs are composed.

The songwriter Evan Bogart, who has written for Beyoncé, Rihanna and Madonna, described second-guessing himself in the studio, worried that a melody or lyric might cross a line he can no longer locate.

“I shouldn’t be thinking about legal precedent when I am trying to write a chorus,” Mr. Bogart said.

Most accusations of plagiarism never go before a judge. Instead, they are settled quietly — and often protected with confidentiality agreements — with the results evident only in the fine print of writing credits.

. . . .

Occasionally, an outlying case will force industrywide adjustment. In 1976, for example, songwriters had to reckon with the idea of unintended infringement after George Harrison was found to have “subconsciously” based his first solo hit, “My Sweet Lord,” on a girl-group classic, the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” After the decision, Mr. Harrison wrote in his memoir, he felt a “paranoia about songwriting that had started to build up in me.”

The “Blurred Lines” case, many lawyers and executives say, has become the latest watershed, putting the commonly understood rules of songwriting up for debate.

As songwriters often remark, there are only so many notes in the scale, and influence is essential to the art. Harvey Mason Jr., a songwriter and producer, said the “Blurred Lines” case “unnerved a lot of people writing songs, because a lot of what inspires creative people is the work that has been done before.”

. . . .

At the “Blurred Lines” trial, an eight-person jury heard detailed and esoteric testimony by expert witnesses from both sides about what, if anything, Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams had copied from “Got to Give It Up.” The Gaye estate contended that specific musical passages had been lifted. Lawyers for Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams countered that they had simply created a genre piece with a similar groove and feel, the kind of thing that musicians — and copyright lawyers — had long considered fair game.

In a dissenting opinion published when the case was upheld last year, Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit argued that the verdict allowed the Gaye estate “to accomplish what no one has done before: copyright a musical style.”

Mr. Thicke was also a fickle witness. He had given interviews citing “Got to Give It Up” as inspiration for his song, only to deny it in depositions, saying he had been intoxicated when talking with music journalists.

“I doubt if any more artists will tell Rolling Stone where they got their inspiration,” Tor Erik Hermansen, part of the songwriting and production duo Stargate, said in an interview.

Although the case did not result in any changes to copyright law, it has had a palpable effect. More songwriters are arming themselves with expensive insurance policies. And musicologists — academically trained experts who sometimes consult in copyright cases — are in greater demand.

. . . .

Songwriters now face heightened scrutiny of their work while it is still in progress, as record companies and music publishers sometimes vet new songs for echoes of past works.

“I’ve had a couple experiences where I was writing something and a lawyer and musicologist said, ‘It sounds like this old song, it’s a very active estate, they’re going to come after you,’” said Mr. Mason, who has worked with stars like Whitney Houston and Kelly Clarkson. “I changed a few notes.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Copyright/Intellectual Property, Legal Stuff

One Comments to “‘Blurred Lines’ on Their Minds, Songwriters Create Nervously”

  1. Melancholy Elephants by Spider Robinson

    https://www.baen.com/Chapters/0671319744/0671319744.htm

    Your copyright laws at work.

    .

    Soon there will be nothing new because it’s all too similar to what’s come before …

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