Plagiarism lawsuits are killing the music industry [op-ed]
As we’ve seen in the past few weeks, the ‘Blurred Lines’ lawsuit of 2015 will eventually lead to the death of all popular music.
Well, maybe it won’t be that dire. But ever since the verdict that ruled that ‘Blurred Lines’ stole from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’, basically ruling that lifting the “feel” or vibe of a song constitutes plagiarism, things have gotten ridiculous.
Over 200 artists signed an open letter warning that the ruling would have terrible ripple effects, writing: “The verdict in this case threatens to punish songwriters for creating new music that is inspired by prior works. All music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre. By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process.”
In the past few weeks, we have seen many high profile examples of lawsuits being launched, and in one case, successfully won, based on the flimsiest premises, on chord changes so rudimentary, they feature in church bells, classical compositions from the 18th Century, and Lube-Mobile jingles from the ‘80s.
A few weeks back, a nine-person jury ruled that Katy Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’ stole from a 2014 Christian rap song named ‘Joyful Noise’ by a relatively unknown named Flame. The entire case centred about a similar (not the same) riff and a basic trap beat that has been heard countless times over the decade. Perry’s team argued that the musical elements being discussed were as basic as ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, but the jury disagreed.
“They’re trying to own basic building blocks of music, the alphabet of music that should be available to everyone,” Perry’s lawyer, Christine Lepera, said during closing arguments.
She is right, of course. But the lines for musical plagiarism cases have blurred. Perry and her co-writers have to pay $2.78 million. It would have been cheaper to buy a beat from Kanye. Or Pharrell. Or Marvin Gaye.
Lady Gaga is another recent target. She is facing a lawsuit for ‘Shallow’, her Streisand-channeling duet with actor Bradley Cooper, who is, of course, best known for his role on Wet Hot American Summer. Now, lest we forget that Gaga once stole ‘Express Yourself’ by Madonna wholesale, changed a few words, and released it as the eight-million-seller ‘Born This Way’. Do you know how Madonna reacted? By saying it was “amusing and flattering and well done,” albeit “reductive”. No lawsuit. No fucks given.
But Madonna is Madonna, and Steve Ronsen is Steve… who now??
Steve Ronsen. Now, if you are like 300 other people around the world, you might have streamed his song ‘Almost’ on Soundcloud. You probably didn’t, though. Steve Ronsen is a songwriter who is threatening to take Lady Gaga to court for a basic three-note run that is in both ‘Shallow’ and his song ‘Almost’, which has since leapt from 300 Soundcloud listens at the time of his ludicrous claim, to 335,000, most of which were drowned out by the sound of incredulous laughter.
“It was brought to my attention by many people that the ‘Shallow’ song sounds like mine,” Ronsen wrote in a statement about the case, which really should have been presented in Comic Sans. “I did not seek this out, I haven’t even seen the movie. I admire Lady Gaga and I just want to get to the bottom of this.”
How gracious of him. Wanna know where else the set of notes that Ronsen is threatening to sue over appears? Here: Do – Re – Mi. As in the first melodic run that every human learns. Did you sing that in your head just now? I know you did. That’s what this potential lawsuit hinges upon.
Many people have pointed out that both songs actually rip off ‘Dust In The Wind’ by Kansas, which misses the point but also makes the point perfectly. Plus, it’s a better song than both.
Australia’s own 5 Seconds Of Summer are currently being sued by a guy named Henderson David, who is claiming that 5SOS’s worldwide hit ‘Youngblood’ owes all its success not to the band’s years of building a fanbase, their intense touring schedule, a social media game that makes Trump look like, well a 73-year-old man squinting into an iPhone, and the might of major labels and publishers – but to their ‘theft’ of a four-note hook that features in the opening verse of an unknown Hungarian song. Oh, and 5SOS only use this part in their own opening verse.
Worse than that, the entire case is built upon one chord change. “In each case, the truly distinctive and ear-catching part of the melody, or “hook” is the descending major 6th, from E to G in the case of White Shadows, and from D to F in Youngblood.”
So, it’s not even the same chord change, it’s been transposed. The lawsuit also makes the point that each song repeats the verse line four times, as if this is a crazy songwriting structure that doesn’t feature in 99% of popular music structure.
Now, I’m not a musicologist, but I will go out on a limb and say that neither the 5SOS lads, nor the three songwriters credited on Henderson’s song, invented the descending major 6th. Do you know what else has this interval? ‘Man In The Mirror’ by Michael Jackson. I assume the MJ estate have bigger legal issues at the moment, but he did it 31 years ago.
Keeping aside the fact that nobody in 5SOS would have heard this Hungarian song before, the lawsuit paints an entire narrative in which the band, down on their luck and desperate for a hit to reverse their flagging fortunes, steal a song which they saw, supposedly, on “a televised Hungarian competition used to select Hungary’s annual entrant in the Eurovision Song Contest.”
I know what you’re thinking: the 5SOS boys probably don’t even have time in their busy schedules to relax in front of Hungarian free-to-air prime-time TV anymore. Well, the lawsuit explains that the performance was also uploaded to YouTube and “5SOS first came to fame as international YouTube cover artists, and Australia, the band’s home country, has been a regular participant in the annual Eurovision Song Contest since 2015, suggesting that 5SOS would have had an interest in, and access to, Henderson’s performance of White Shadows.” So there!
They cite a tweet from 2014 in which Calum Hood wrote: “Churn that butter Poland” referring to a bonkers Polish Eurovision entry, as proof the band were scouring Eurovision tapes for inspiration. Keep in mind, Henderson David wasn’t actually in Eurovision. He auditioned, on Hungarian TV, and failed.
Now, this next part is actually in the lawsuit: “…it appears that 5SOS, pressed for time, hungry for success, and desperate for a successful follow-up single, returned to their roots as an international YouTube cover band, cribbing ‘Youngblood’’s earworm melodic verse directly from ‘White Shadows’.”
This lawsuit should be laughed out of court, but as we have seen, anything can happen now. Logic no longer applies. ‘It’s on the internet’ seems to be proof enough that anyone can hear anything. It’s the same logic that argues I have access to Prince Harry because we both have email accounts.
If you’ve been on the internet in the last decade, someone would have forwarded you a link to Axis Of Awesome’s ‘4 Chords’ – in which they play 43 songs over a common four-chord progression, I–V–vi–IV, upon which literally tens of thousands of popular songs have been written.
The band play fast and loose with this concept, including songs that only briefly follow this progression, and some that don’t at all, but it is a comedy song, and the point is well made – by definition, all musical compositions are derivative. There are seven notes.
Make no mistake. This is a land rush, a standover technique, it’s Suge Knight holding Vanilla Ice out a window. It’s breaking into someone’s house and suing them because you slip over in their kitchen. It’s stupidity writ large, and these cases will all eventually be overturned and everything will be corrected. This simply has to be how all this legal madness ends.
Either that, or The Beatles will just sue everyone.