Can you plagiarize the feel of a song? The jury in the “Blurred Lines” case seems to think so.
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This is a head-scratcher, to be sure. Most cases of musical plagiarism involve striking similarities between two songs’ melodies and/or lyrics. In the case of “Blurred Lines” vs “Got To Give It Up” (and despite the judge’s admonition to the jury not to consider the “feel” of the songs in question), it appears that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams got nailed for exactly that: copying a feel.
I’ve been reading about this for several days now, assuming that I must be missing something. After all, we only get to know what’s reported, and so that requires reporters to understand a case before communicating the facts to us.
There are indisputable facts here. The lyrics for “Blurred Lines” bear no similarity to the lyrics of “Got To Give It Up,” and no amount of discussion can change that.
The melodies bear no similarity either. I’ve done up the first few bars of each song, and you really would have to have an active imagination to claim otherwise. For those who read music, click the links below to see the first page of each song (Each link opens in a new browser window/tab). I notated the melodies more-or-less the way we hear them in their recorded versions.
If you want to hear the first few bars of each tune in a “stripped down” accompaniment (pun intended), click the links below. I’ve done the renditions using a basic chording accompaniment, with “Got To Give It Up” transposed to the key of G major so that you can hear them both in the same key. Remember, the jury was instructed to consider the sheet music only, not the actual accompaniment or “feel” of the music.
When done in this minimalist accompaniment, you get a clear picture of the melodies, and there is no denying that any similarity between the songs’ melodies is nonexistent.
So it does appear to me that the jury did exactly what the judge told them not to do. They seemed to be unable to separate the performances from the sheet music. There is no denying that Thicke and Pharrell deliberately borrowed (stole?) arrangement ideas from Gaye’s rendition.
But this is a real worry for songwriters. Imagine the scenario, which this week seems somewhere between possible and likely:
- You write a song that bears no resemblance to any other existing song.
- A performer/producer loves your song and wants to record it.
- They arrange the song (let’s say, without your specific input) so that it has a feel similar to The Bee Gees “How Deep Is Your Love,” including an arpeggiated keyboard, washy background vocals and string sweetening.
- The copyright holders for “How Deep Is Your Love” launch a lawsuit claiming infringement. They sue YOU for copying their song, even though sheet music renditions bear no similarity.
When has this happened before? Never, as far as I can see. I’m not a lawyer, and so am willing to accept that there’s something here that musicians aren’t understanding about music and the law. But it all seems ludicrous, sad and terrifying. When you can win a 7-million-dollar court case because the tempo, drum beat and cow bell were similar… well, as I say, this is a head scratcher.
Even if we were to consider the musical arrangement, they’re somewhat similar but not identical. The percussion for both songs is similar, but not overly. Both cow bell parts are completely different. The bass lines are similar, but not strikingly so.
It will be interesting to see where this all goes. For now, unless I’m missing something, it appears that we’ve witnessed what can only be called a judicial blunder that could have serious ramifications for songwriters.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)