Saturday, March 28, 2015

Robins and Mouses and Lawsuits! Oh, My!

First off, let’s put it out there that we are fans of the music of both Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.  We’ve had the pleasure of seeing each of them perform a couple of times. Thicke’s performance with Chicago at last year’s Grammys was worth the trip.  Pharrell has had a great run most recently with the likes of Daft Punk, the Voice, and Hans Zimmer.

For anyone who thought we were kidding about Hans

Being that you clicked on this article, you’re probably aware by now that a jury decided the Thicke/Williams/T.I. collaboration of their hit “Blurred Lines” had, and I quote, “too many similarities to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Gotta Give It Up.’”  Apparently, “similarities” equate to $7.3 million awarded to the late great's estate. ("Estate" means "there's nobody left alive who had anything to do with writing the original song.")

Okay.  Let that sink in for a minute.  The writers freely admit to being inspired by Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye.  This is not a Vanilla Ice rip-off where Mr. Ice (or his lawyers) tried to convince everyone that he didn’t outright steal the hook from David Bowie/Queen’s “Under Pressure” (Like this).  This is a style.  A muse.  An idea. 

It's possible that dad had just seen 'Flashdance' here.

When it comes to composition copyright infringement, the legal system has repeatedly found that stealing is about the “math” of the notes.  Either the notes are the same, or they aren’t.  It's a simple equation with very little room for interpretation.

Let’s take this new precedent further.  Moving on to the obvious next step, it wouldn't be unheard of to have the following lawsuits immediately filed against the “Blurred Lines” writers:

  • Michael Jackson's Estate for using a similar “Ooh” sound to his signature hook
  • Bee Gees because he sang in falsetto
  • Roland Corporation for use of their 808 Drum Machine
  • James Brown for letting T.I. rap during the middle eight
  • Christopher Walken for grotesque overuse of a cowbell

"I've got a fever... for a lawyer."

This ruling comes within the same few weeks that Tom Petty’s people “mentioned” to Sam Smith’s people that “Stay With Me” sounded awfully close to “I Won’t Back Down” (Example of why this is absurd).  Smith said “oops” and gave up 12.5% of the writing credit to Petty (Tom’s last name is really unfortunate in this example).  It's definitely no coincidence that Smith’s song was queued up to sweep the Grammys that same week, and Tom was up for an award in his category as well.  Nope, no stunt here at all. No sarcasm either.  Move along.

If, and I repeat IF, we the jury conclude (at the upcoming appeal) that a song “sounds like,” “has the feel,” “reminds me of” another song, then let’s all just go back to painting pictures on cave walls.  

"Egyptians, I'll see you and your hieroglyphics in court."

A standard question we ask when we start working with one of our artists is, “which artists inspire you?”   We follow that up with “Who would you say that you sound like?”  And even more audaciously, “who would you LIKE to sound like?”

So, where does that leave us?  What is the solution?  Who would have the most to lose out of this “similarity” case going against Thicke, Pharrell and T.I.?  The easy answer is “the record labels.”  OK.  True.  It’s possible that all of us production companies and record labels could be in a bind to the point that we’re having to build instruments that have never been used, make up notes that have never been heard, and write with words that have never been said. After all, if every formula has already been used, it's up to us to create new ones. But hey, let’s call that impractical.

"Hey, hey, hey!  $7.3 million, please"

So, let's brainstorm for a minute here:  Which single company has the most to lose on past and future projects, intentionally mimics song styling, and has the biggest pile of cash at stake?  Walt Disney Studios.  Yes, The Mouse.  If you have ever spent any time in front of The Disney Channel, spent a long day at a Disney theme park, or went to see “Frozen” for the 6th time with your children, you are well aware that they freely capitalize on music that “sounds like” other pop music.  If all of the sudden that was *poof* gone, you might as well lock the doors to the kingdom.

You don't get to see a sequel

-The BentBeat Team
BentBeat Productions