As someone who loves to know how the pop sausage is made, I can’t be entirely unhappy that Marvin Gaye’s family accused Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I. of using elements of Gaye’s 1977 hit Got to Give It Up without permission on Blurred Lines. Without their lawsuit, we would never have learned that Pharrell wrote most of it because Thicke was too wasted on booze and Vicodin to get to the studio on time. Nor that Thicke, still wasted, then lied to the press because, he admitted, “I was jealous and I wanted some of the credit.” And we’d have missed out on Pharrell’s attempts to answer the Gaye family lawyer’s existential question: “What is vibe?”
Still, the case is a farce and the verdict, ordering the defendants to pay $7.4m, is a disaster. Just as dismaying is the prevailing online reaction which, no doubt influenced by Thicke’s charmless public image, sides with the jury. It epitomises the unhealthy obsession, both legal and cultural, with the idea of plagiarism in music — the strange desire to expose songwriters as thieves. There are even websites, Sounds Just Like and That Song Sounds Like, devoted to collecting examples of resemblances that are coincidental at best. Reducing the complex operation of influence to an artificial binary — originality vs plagiarism — is an ignorant, reactionary impulse that misunderstands creativity and, when lawyers get involved, is dangerously hostile towards it. The defendants’ representative was right when he said the ruling “sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward”.
Any honest artist knows that pure originality is a myth. If you could copyright rhythms and chord sequences, songwriting would be almost impossible by now. Even with melodies, many so-called “imitations” are unintentional. Given the limited number of notes on the scale, it’s inevitable that some songs will inadvertently trespass on old melodies. Sam Smith’s publishers recently agreed to give credit and royalties to Tom Petty after Petty’s people claimed Stay With Me ripped off I Won’t Back Down, but the tone, texture and most of the melody of Smith’s song are different. Even Petty didn’t think the resemblance was deliberate, calling it “a musical accident, no more no less”.
I’ll go further and say that even deliberate quotations are more than xeroxes. In his 2014 book about Definitely Maybe, Alex Niven argues that nobody who enjoys sample-based hip-hop records like Paul’s Boutique should dismiss Noel Gallagher as a mere plagiarist: “Oasis offered a rock equivalent to hip-hop’s brazen appropriation of pop-historical source material.” During the same period, The Charlatans played fast and loose with John Lennon, as did Elastica with The Stranglers and Wire. But a good song, let alone a great one, transcends its obvious inspirations. When Quentin Tarantino imitates a scene from a favourite movie, or Shakespeare reworks an existing narrative, we recognise the homage without dismissing the entire work, so why should melodies be sacrosanct?
The Blurred Lines case is particularly absurd because it’s not even about melody. I can only assume that the jury ignored Judge John Kronstadt’s instruction to limit the case to the elements that appear on sheet music rather than the sound (or indeed “vibe”) of the two records, because the tune and chords are not the same. Play them on guitar or piano and it’s obvious. Only the sound is a homage and, as defence attorney Howard King argued in vain, “no one owns a genre or a style or a groove”. That challenge to the idea of ownership is important. Songwriting isn’t a zero-sum game in which the existence of one song threatens another. Excessive focus on plagiarism transforms the past from a fertile well of influences into an oppressive monolith.
In court, Howard King warned, “The wrong decision here will stifle musicians.” Imagine what this precedent could do to artists with much less cash than Thicke and Pharrell, suffocating new work for the benefit of the already wealthy. The word influence derives from the verb “to flow”, and musical ideas should flow as freely as possible. Whatever you think of the individuals involved, you should hope that the verdict is overturned on appeal by a jury that actually understands how music works. Dorian Lynskey @Dorianlynskey
Read Dorian Lynskey every month in Q Magazine.