Blurred Lines In Musical Copyright

In 2013, Robin Thicke released a top hit called “Blurred Lines.” Since then, the song has gotten mixed feedback, due to the fact that it sounds similar to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song called “Got to Give It Up.” Deceased music legend, Marvin Gaye’s family has filed a lawsuit for two different songs that they claim Thicke copied. The other song he was accused of copying was “Love After War,” which supposedly sounds like Gaye’s “After the Dance.” Gaye’s family believes that Thicke has not only copied the song “Blurred Lines,” but is actually trying to be Marvin Gaye. This issue goes back to a big picture controversy: Should new music artists be able to use samples of songs, or create similar sounding music without giving credit to the original? Where can one draw the line between honoring someone, paying their music styles/lyrics/sounds forward, and blatantly copying them due to lack of their own creativity as an artist? And does money change anything when considering these questions? I would say that this line can be drawn when the new artist has something new to add to the table – something that benefits using the old sound, but that can be distinguished and meaningful. And that yes, money does play a very important factor.

There is a quote in which Thicke and Pharrell are discussing Gaye’s song, “Got to Give It Up” when talking about the process of creating their new song. Gaye supposedly said, “Pharrell and I were in the studio and I told him that one of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give it Up.’ I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.” However, when questioned if he thought of Gaye when he wrote ‘Blurred Lines,’ Thicke answered no. Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and Clifford Harris Jr. who goes under the name of T.I., are suing Gaye’s family in retaliation (Okayplayer Marvin Gayes). An official trial is set for 2015 to determine what happens with this case (Wikipedia, Got To Give It Up). According to The Music Business by David Naggar copyright infringement, which I will talk about later, the judge or jury looks to see “If it can be shown that the person who claims authorship of a new song had ‘access’ to the older song, (e.g., you heard it on the radio) the remaining legal test is simply whether the amount taken from the older copyrighted song (music or words) was substantial (63).” In Thicke’s case, with his interview, they would be able to prove this. I took an interest in this case after talking about remixing, rewriting, and DJing. This led me to other questions such as, when does remix turn into imitation, should people be able to make money from others’ work, and will remix ever actually be accepted in society?

Adam Banks’ wrote about “Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age,” where he talks about the “DJ as a digital griot.” A griot is a storyteller, originating in West Africa, that uses stories as a way to preserve history and tradition throughout the generations. Banks’ says that, “the everyday griots who use this form engage in a remix of rememory, identifying specific values that can help preserve community in the midst of social rupture (87).” Digital griots fit in with songs because artists often incorporate clips or the beat of older songs into new songs. A DJ will mash together one song as a backdrop and put new lyrics on top of it from a recent song. In a way, this is what Thicke did, although I believe the issue here is that he did not give Gaye credit, and denies the fact that Gaye was even an influence in the song. That being said, it is important for these “digital griots” to continue to bring older songs into this generation, so we don’t forget them. The newer generation has probably heard “Blurred Lines,” but may not know who Marvin Gaye is. But for this to work, Thicke would have to give him credit, which he did not. In the same article. Banks states that he “personally always took the ‘remix’ to be the creation of a new version of a song or text, a remake undertaken to fit a different context, purpose, or audience, where the ‘re’ in the mix might involve rearranging elements, changing the beat (as in the case of a dance remix), extending the original (89).” I am interested in the various responses from the music community in comparison to the laws in place protecting music. Had Thicke given Gaye credit for the song, would this controversy still exist?

We won’t ever know the answer to that, but in a similar situation, there was controversy over Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” sounding very similar to Elton John’s “Your Song.” Specifically, the line “and you can tell everybody” was found in both songs. However, Blacc actually credited Elton John and Bernie Taupin as co-writers of the song. Blacc has called “The Man” a tribute to Elton John, and has been upfront and honest about his influence. I believe that this should be an allowed and accepted approach to using someone else’s music. Of course, there will be many people who like the the original better, and that is perfectly fine. But Blacc has clearly added meaning and his own twist to the classic, and even though not everyone has to like the song, I do not see the need for the controversy. In fact, he is bringing Elton John into this generation in a way that can interest younger people who may not have appreciated, or known of, the works of Elton John, but listen to the radio and hear “The Man” being played multiple times in one car ride (Headline Planet).

There is always the issue of money when it comes to copyright laws. In the article “Remix: How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law” written by Lawrence Lessig, he discusses this issue of a “hybrid economy.” It also deals with the difference between amateurs and professionals. Amateurs make music for musics’ sake, whereas professionals make money. The examples of Thicke, Gaye, Blacc and John are all professionals, making a lot of money from their songs. Lessig mentions two types of economies: the sharing economy, where money is not an issue and everything is free use, and a commercial economy, where money is a factor. He suggests a hybrid economy, which deals with both together. All parties are extremely wealthy and well known, so why does Gaye’s family still want to keep his music unused by others? Copyright is solely about the money. Copyright infringement happens when a songwriter uses “a portion of someone else’s copyright song in a new song without permission, unless the new song is legally including only a ‘fair use’ of the copyrighted song, such as on occasion may be the case with a parody. (The Music Business, 63)” Some factors that go into the decision as to if it is copyright infringement are how much of the song is being used, the context, and whether this will deprive the owner of making money.

The book, Steal This Music by Joanna Teresa Demers, talks about the “moral right” one is thought to have when it comes to copyrighting their own work. Again, this has to do with the profit they make with that copyright. However, most artists sell their work to a publisher or record label, and get a portion of the income in return. Demers states that “Those who claim to sponsor moral rights want to extend copyright protections in terms of both scope and duration in order to ensure continued royalties. Those who advocate the economic incentive theory argue that expanding copyright durations will stunt future creativity (13).” Bringing it back to Lessig’s idea of a “hybrid economy,” this would be ideal: A copyright law that can protect the rights of a musician to his or her own songs (because, what if musicians decide to not make music due to not being able to make money if other people copy their music?) But at the same time, allows some freedom in expanding on the ideas’ of others, because that is how we move forward: by taking a good idea and changing it to make it useful in a different way.

Separate from money, there is the issue of recognition. In “Blurred Lines,” the beat is unmistakably similar to that of Gaye, but there are also distinct parts of both songs. There are very specific music laws that pertain to the case. First, there’s publishing a song, which is where a musician gets money. The person who writes the song legally owns the song and the copyrights to the song. Although Marvin Gaye is no longer living, the song is still under copyright, although with some work after a certain amount of time it is no longer protected by copyright (Wikipedia, Music Law). In the specific case, there was also the question as to if Gaye’s copyrights were only for sheet music or if they include the songs under question. The 1909 Copyright Act allows Gaye’s family to copyright more than just the sheet music, however, the family did not use this in their case (Billboard).

I believe that this lying, and not giving credit when asked is where the negative definition of plagiarism comes from.There is a misconception in the academic world that plagiarism is all bad and should not be done. But when we, instead, think of it in musical terms: as using, remixing, or DJing – it doesn’t seem so bad after all. In fact, the negative connotation of using others’ work is not helping save music, but is holding it back. Many artists that we idolize, including John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, and George Harrison have been sued for plagiarism, but where would music be today without them? If plagiarism laws were better defined, yet limited, it would allow the musical freedom that artists have been using anyway, just subtract from the amount of lawsuits per year. A quote from Questlove says, “Just because a song is derivative that doesn’t mean it’s plagiarized.” I partly agree with this; using a sample of a song to create something new is used a lot and should not take away from the meaning of the original. However, if the artist claims that he or she did not use the original as an influence, I think this is where a line can be drawn for plagiarism. This makes it a credit and moral issue, not necessarily money (The Hollywood Reporter).

I think the case of Aloe Blacc and Elton John is an ideal situation and fix for future lawsuits. While artists who have worked hard to create their music do deserve credit and appreciation, at the same time artists need to be able to inspire each other. Everything we do is based off of something else. When Apple came out with the first iPhone, they didn’t credit the inventor of a square phone, or the first phone company to use a touchscreen. Even if Thicke had given Gaye credit, there would be still be a controversy over this, as shown with Blacc. After realizing that he used part of Elton John’s song, people had the idea that he is no longer creative, or his own artist, and miss out on the fact that he did make the song his own. Now, this is not to say that Gaye was in the right by claiming he didn’t use Thicke’s song. Or that we should be able to freely use as much of a song as we want, that someone else has already created, and to make a profit out of it. But everything that has ever been created, in a way, is a remix of resources or materials that were already on earth. Using a beat or a part of another song, as an intro or even throughout the song, is in a way honoring the previous song. When money comes into the picture, the lines of “right” and “wrong” can be somewhat more blurred. But, with looser laws on copyright infringement, I believe that both parts of this hybrid idea can be accomplished, and that it would open up and expand the world of music to new (yes, new, even if they do influence each other) heights.