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Berginski: ‘Blurred Lines’ verdict sets bad precedent

By Staff | Mar 27, 2015

(The following appeared in the March 21 edition of the Tribune.)

Oh joy, another lawsuit in the music world. “This song sounds like that song.” “This song has the same beat as song X.” “This song has the same chord progression as song Y.” “I wrote this song before band Z did.” Yadda, yadda, yadda, give me a goshdarn break.

Lawsuits over things like beats and chord progressions and melodies are nothing new. Led Zeppelin, Coldplay, a whole host of other artists have been involved in plagiarism lawsuits, and it will continue to happen as long as there are songs to be written.

The 2013 hit song “Blurred Lines”, by Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I., is only the latest in a whole annoying string of these kind of things, except this time it sets a potentially stifling and dangerous precedent for future songwriters.

The family of late-R&B singer Marvin Gaye sued Thicke and company on the basis that “Blurred Lines” sounds like Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up”. Thicke et al. testified that “Got to Give It Up” merely inspired “Blurred Lines”. (Even though in court Thicke said Williams wrote it, not he.) A California judge ruled in favor of the Gaye estate to the tune of over $7 million.

The question must be asked as to how similar they sound. Lyrically they’re not the same. They’re similar due to their basslines and feel.

The problem now is that the lines separating inspiration and copying are – and I hate to use a pun here, but I must – “blurred” for musicians, past, present and future.

Say a solo rock guitarist is out there, one who claims guitarists such as James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Adam Jones as influences. Does that mean that if the guitarist wrote a riff that was a la “Master of Puppets” or “Schism”, then Metallica or Tool can sue the pants off him? Can a female country singer be sued for copyright infringement if her song sounds a bit like Miranda Lambert’s “White Liar”, especially if the singer claimed Lambert as an inspiration? Or how about past and present artists? Can the surviving members of Led Zeppelin sue Rush because the latter’s early albums sound similar to the former’s style? Can Venom sue Metallica because both “Buried Alive” and “One” use a very similar A to G modulation?

A jury or a judge cannot hear inspiration in a song if it’s taken to court; all he, she or they’ll hear are sequences of notes.The notes themselves belong to no one, only the arrangement does. What the “Blurred Lines” verdict does is put the fear of litigation into artists who want to express themselves in the same vein as others who came before and inspired them. That is a precedent that shouldn’t have been established.

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