Editor’s Column: How music copyright lawsuits are stifling artists’ creativity

We live in an age of self-imposed rhythm and melody ownership and, as we drift further from the origins of music, originality is only going to be harder to come by.

We’ve all seen it in the news, an artist in court on a copyright for a short snippet, beat or feel (yes, really, a feel) of a song that the accuser says has been lifted from their work. Recently, we’ve seen Ed Sheeran in court, not for the first time too, over his 2017 single Shape of You.

Not to discredit the accuser’s work, but the less said about the case the better. The simple matter is that he believes a short part of Sheeran’s song was lifted from his own work released a year prior.

Sheeran, thankfully, won the Shape of You case

Then we have Ed Sheeran again (and no, I am not an Ed Sheeran superfan), this time with Marvin Gaye’s estate claiming he had stolen almost the entirety of his song Let’s Get It On in his grammy-winning single Thinking Out Loud.

Next, we are back with Marvin Gaye’s estate who are suing Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for their song Blurred Lines, and its similarities to Gaye’s song Got To Give It Up.

This list could continue for a long time and feature artists from countless genres and musical backgrounds, but the truth of the matter is that some artists have taken music ownership too far in recent years. So with these cases in mind, let’s break down the ramifications for modern music.

The simple fact is that, despite what some people think, music can never be entirely original. There are certain limitations on what can be created using only 12 notes. Think about that again. This is on par with accusing someone of copying a painting because they used the same few colours in succession.

The Shape of You case is one that is especially relevant here, as his accuser, Sami Chokri, claims he lifted a section based around a pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic scales are some of the most common riffs and vocal melodies used in pop music, to the extent that they are often taught to guitarists and vocalists as a way of improvising over chords.

The sheer nerve of Chokri to claim Sheeran stole his riff using a simialr pentatonic scale is akin to claiming ownership of those particular notes. A chilling prospect for the future of music if it is ever realised.

A brief update on the case though, thankfully, saw the judge rule that there was only a “speculative foundation” for Chokri’s case. So the claim has been dismissed.

Reactions to the Shape of You case

The second example, involving Marvin Gaye’s estate and Sheeran once again is another worrying case for the modern musician.

The claim was that Sheeran and co-writer Amy Padge lifed “melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping” from Gaye’s song, Let’s Get It On.

There are two issues with this claim, the first being that the Gaye estate are practically trying to copyright a style of music. A style of music that Gaye himself was rightly lauded for pioneering, but certainly not one that he originally created.

Both songs rest in the soul genre, with Sheeran’s leaning more towards modern pop, but to say that no two songs can use a similar genre (which is practically the basis of the claim) would be a devastating blow for all musicians.

Take the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) sphere as an example here, to use a similar claim here could basically enable one artist to copyright what they call a “drop”. Is it not better to have artists take inspiration and ideas, whether consciously or subconsciously, and elaborate on them? Rather then have them left in their initial state.

The second issue with the claim is that Gaye’s estate was stating, by default, that his song was entirely original in itself.

No song is original, and none have been for centuries. If Gaye’s soul is entirely original, then we have to look past the jazz and blues classics that soul was built from. While we’re at it, let’s also ignore the traditional songs that inspired jazz and blues.

This kind of claim not only creates an anxious atmosphere for anyone creating music these days, but also drags down the name of Gaye himself, someone who, as any good musician should do, would hopefully have loved to see just how far his brilliance has taken music.

This point brings us into the Blurred Lines debacle, which, need I remind you, was won by Gaye’s estate and recieved one of the biggest payouts in music copyright history.

Before we go into detail, yes, there are two clear similarities between the two songs. The bassline and the drums. The argument here however is whether emulation and inspirations taken from a byegone era should be seen as copyright infringement.

Whether or not Williams and Thicke directly decided to lift these two elements from Gaye’s song is almost irrelevant to this, as it raises bigger questions about inspirations and tributes to older songs.

Should an artist (or their estate) really get upset because their work is still inspiring artists forty years after its release? Whatever your thoughts on Blurred Lines (mine are in no way positive), should an artist really have to credit their inspiration to the extent of financial gain because their work was instrumental in creating new music?

Imagine a world where an artist lists their inspirations in an interview, only to then be held accountable to all of those names they mentioned, and have to then give writing credit and potentially royalties because someone’s talent aided their creative process. In a world where earnings in music are already more limited than ever, this is a worrying notion.

Before it is mentioned, yes, I do understand the importance of saving your work from copycats and those looking to capitalise on iconic moments for their own benefit (Vanilla Ice and his “one beat” logic springs to mind), but the cons far outweigh the pros here.

What would this mean for sampling, for instance? The backbone of so many songs and even the origin of some genres of music (Drum and Bass?) Must we only take inspiration from hymns and songs in the public domain then?

Of course it is vital to recognise those who have made the music industry what it is, but with every copyright case comes a potential loss of another brilliant song. Another artist too scared to release their creation for fear of an accusation from somewhere.

Need I remind you that there are only twelve notes in music? If some big players in the industry start claiming some for themselves, it leaves nothing for the rest of us to work with.