Saturday, March 14, 2015

Blurred Lines verdict more evidence that copyright has gone too far

A jury awarded Marvin Gaye's children nearly $7.4 million after determining that the musical teaming of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams copied the Marvin Gaye song "Got to give it up" in crafting "Blurred Lines".

I heard the mashup. You can find it in a number of places, but here is one of them.

They sound like clones, it's true. But so what? I've heard the song a few times and in no way did I ever find myself thinking, "That sounds just like 'got to give it up'." And I'm quite familiar with both songs.

The problem I have with the entire premise is one of creative influence. Very few artists create what can be described as brand new music. Every new song, every new piece of music is in some way influenced by other material. We have the grand sum of all the music we've heard stored in our brains and it has an effect on anything we might create. If you ask an artist who their influences are, in general, on a particular album, or even regarding a specific song, you're not likely to get 'nobody' for an answer. We ask about their influences in part, because we hear the influences ourselves and we want to see if we're right in our guess. It's a natural part of creating art. You're likely to be inspired whether in a small part or a lot by other works.

It doesn't just happen in music, either. Movies are based on life stories, books, the news, and other movies. Paintings are based on real or imagined subjects with the stylistic influences of other artists and even your art teacher.

So at what point do we insist that the new work is an infringement on an older work? I venture to say you can't draw an accurate line that everyone would agree on. You can't numerically quantify how similar or dissimilar works are from each other. We've tried, but we're truly kidding ourselves. But the better question is why would you want to? Why should an artist have to worry about being influenced by another piece of art? Sure, it's ethically wrong to outright copy a work in a large part, but it doesn't actually have any effect on the original artist, because it's a fake. A forgery. In a world where important news about fakery and forgery travels at the speed of light. No self-respecting artist wants to be labelled a fraud and typically wouldn't intentionally copy another artist, trying to be the original version of an idea or style. When artists do copy, it is almost always a tribute to the original work. I believe Pharrell when he said that he didn't intentionally copy the Marvin Gaye song. He admitted being influenced by the man's music throughout his life and therefore the creation of music that sounds like Marvin Gaye is to be expected.

So now, thanks to a crappy copyright law, and a crafty lawyer, the offspring of Marvin Gaye, who is no longer with us, will earn over 7 million dollars just because someone made a ton of money creating a catchy song that sounds a lot like a song their dad wrote. Blurred Lines earned a Grammy award too. How come the Grammy people didn't notice the similarity? They're music gurus for crying out loud. Maybe they did notice and they were OK with it.

The Verve got in trouble too when they used a (rather obscure) Rolling Stones sample in their massive hit "Bittersweet Symphony". That little steal cost them relinquishing all royalties to the song. Originally it was to be a 50/50 split, but the song got really popular and the Stones camp got greedy. Andrew Oldham, of the orchestra that made the original music that the sample is based on, said "As for Richard Ashcroft, well, I don't know how an artist can be severely damaged by that experience. Songwriters have learned to call songs their children, and he thinks he wrote something. He didn't. I hope he's got over it." Meanwhile, Keith Richards, when asked if it was harsh taking all The Verve's royalties from the song said, "I'm out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money." You would probably find that many artists involved in copyright cases with other artists are actually thrilled that their music was inspiration for new works. But the battle is typically initiated by copyright holders who have little to do with the creation of the original work and are motivated by money, nothing more.

Who the hell would want to create new music anymore? I'd be too afraid of pissing off the kids of Kurt Cobain or Elvis Presley. Why do we need this greed-fest? Let's stop pretending that copying art is a crime punishable by bankruptcy and let artists be artists.

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