The Bluured Lines of Copyrighting

Songwriting is a craft that must be perfected with time, and like any other talent that you must build, it can be frustratingly slow going. Not everyone can pull a classic like “Yesterday” out of a dream (Paul McCartney might be the only one, in fact). One thing is certain, when you listen to good music, you’re inspired – but for Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams that inspiration has now cost them more than $7 million! But they aren’t the first artists to get knocked around over copyright.

George Harrison – The quiet Beatle had the first #1 hit of the defunct group with 1971’s “My Sweet Lord.” The only problem was that he got promptly sued for ripping off “He’s So Fine” – and lost. The songs do have a similar sound, but the feelings are pretty disparate (one’s an anthem to spiritualism and one is an anthem to a hottie.) The ruling was that Harrison didn’t deliberately plagiarize the earlier song, but that it was plagiarism nonetheless. Either way, George took a hit. On the bright side, the song is credited to saving a lot of lives.

Vanilla Ice – It’s not hard to discern that Vanilla Ice ripped off the Queen and David Bowie hit, “Under Pressure.” It appears he did it on purpose, and did not pay the original artists in order to use sample. Even though the song has long been relegated to nostalgia (and not really great nostalgia, either), “Ice Ice Baby” did bring up an important plagiarism issue. Did Ice’s attempt to change up the iconic bass sample (he altered the timing of it slightly) negate the fact that it was copyright infringement? Not likely. The case was settled out of court, but he probably paid big bucks for his #1 hit’s purposeful indiscretion.

Sam Smith – Tom Petty’s no angel (in fact he’s been accused of blatantly ripping off younger artists, The Jayhawks), but he’s still an artist! And he should be paid for his songwriting. That’s what another recent copyright scuffle determined. Current pop star Sam Smith (who claims to have never even heard “I Won’t Back Down”) may have unknowingly plagiarized the elder statesmen of rock, but before things could get to a Robin Thicke level of messed up, the two stars’ teams made it a non-issue: Sam Smith gave Tom Petty co-writing credit which comes with 12.5% royalties. Problem solved.

“Blurred Lines” sounds pretty similar to Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” and Robin Thicke admitted to enjoying the Marvin Gaye classic. But copyright infringement just became a lot easier to pursue due to the precedent set but this case. No lyrics, melodies, or direct sounds were taken from the song. Not even a sampled “woo!” In fact, if you had to describe the reason the two songs were compared in the first place, it would be the feeling that they both evoke. A 70s vibe. Because one song is from that era, and one wishes to be.

This just means that new artists will have to be even more original with their material. And that copyright lawsuits are probably going to become more frequent. Good luck out there! The lesson here is to listen to your work with a very careful ear before releasing anything (and then run it by someone older than you, just in case it’s really close to something you’ve never heard).