If you haven’t had the time on your hands to pay attention to the legal side of music lately, let me give you an update on the happenings.
Nothing has changed. That’s the update.
But when I say nothing has changed, what I am specifically talking about is musician lawsuits over copied work. Every year, there are more cases and granted, some are more obvious than others, but most of the time it seems storied musicians who once made a lot of money are now scrounging the bottom of the barrel to salvage funds from what was once their hit song.
This year brings two major cases: Tom Petty claiming Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” is an infringement “Won’t Back Down” and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was allegedly poached from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.”
I believe “Stay With Me” is far from familiar to Tom Petty’s song. Unfortunately, Smith settled with the artist without a fight — although he certainly should have battled the lawsuit. Petty was victorious by claiming that three notes in his original sound similar (but not the same) to three notes in Smith’s song.
But who better to be scraping the barrel to make an extra buck off of a tune that could easily be hummed and devised by a 5 year old without ever hearing Petty’s track. Petty’s popularity has fizzled out in recent years, and with Smith being at the top of his career, it was a smart (but obnoxious) move on Petty’s part to ensures he still gets paid. If you ask me, I think Petty is just jealous of the pop star’s angelic voice. Petty made a move that lives up to his name, pun intended.
I believe Marvin Gaye’s family’s case, however, could stand. But should he be suing? No. His family should be happy that the beat to his song was good enough to top radio charts a second time. The background beat that plays throughout the entirety of Gaye’s song is a spitting image of the one that plays throughout Thicke’s. At least I can’t hear any sort of difference. So in this case, I think Gaye’s family had the grounds to sue, but shouldn’t have.
It’s very possible that either Thicke, or his sound engineers, knew they were ripping off Gaye, or it’s possible that they were fooling around with instruments and liked what they created without ever thinking of Gaye’s track. And it’s possible that Smith knew he was basing his chorus off the three notes from Petty’s, or it’s possible that he just really liked the catchiness of the notes and went with it.
The point is: Who’s to know?
We have been through decades of music, and it seems just as likely to believe that a musician could also be an avid music listener and potentially pick up a beat or a riff based on something they’ve either heard or loved and not realized it. In this case, the lines begin to blur between what is theirs and what isn’t, pun intended.
I get it, money is great, but I wouldn’t sue a person walking down the street that walks like me. Why? Because it’s a dick move. How could I ever prove they had the intent to copy me?
Let’s keep the music industry going and keep encouraging artists to create what they want without being afraid that they might get sued. Sure, at the end of the day these storied artists make more money, but in the long term it only hurts both the creativity and the reputation of the industry. Maybe said expired artists should just be happy their music was good enough to be recycled. It’s more green anyway, and we all like green.
Caleb Dennis: twitter.com/TheWriterCalebD.