May 1, 2015
"Uptown Funk," that incredibly overrated (but nonetheless fun) song that broke all of the streaming records ever, just had five new songriting credits slapped onto it. The original six writers are now joined by the five writers of "Oops Upside Your Head," a 1979 song you've almost certainly never heard of by The Gap Band, who you've also probably never heard of. The publisher, Minder Music, filed a claim with Youtube on behalf of the "Oops Upside Your Head" writers, and in doing so put the ownership split over 100%. The settlement gives the "Oops" writers 17% of the "Uptown" royalties. The reason for the claim in the first place is that the "Oops" writers believed that "Uptown" borrowed a little too heavily from their song. Listen for yourself:
Yeah, I don't hear the resemblance either. I guess they're both songs, written using notes, which makes them too similar? I dunno. The only thing I can hear is that "Oops, up, side ya head" has the same rhythm as "Up, town, funk you up." That's it. And yet, that was apparently enough that the "Uptown" writers felt it was safer to give them a piece of the pie than to risk a copyright suit. This is bad for music.
The problem started, as do so many problems, with Robin Thicke. In March, a jury found them guilty of ripping off Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it up" and ordered them to pay 7.3 million fucking dollars to Gaye's estate. I've listened to both of those songs - stacked together, one after the other, you name it - and I still can't for the life of me hear how any rational person could listen to "Blurred Lines" and come to the conclusion that it so closely resembled "Got to Give it up" that it constituted copyright infringement. They have vaguely similar tempos and musical arrangements, and "Blurred Lines" does appear to ape the "hey hey hey" and subtle downbeat of "Got to Give it up" - but Pharrell was always very open about being "inspired by" that song. Tbh, it probably didn't help that Pharrell and co. tried to preemptively sue the Gaye estate first.
Now, the floodgates have opened. In January, Sam Smith chose to add Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to the list of writers for "Stay With Me." Petty's camp felt that it borrowed too heavily from "I Won't Back Down," and they have a point, kind of. "Stay With Me's" hook is indeed melodically similar to the chorus of "I Won't Back Down," but that's where it ends. The songs are so woefully different in tone, subject matter and tempo that saying that one infringes upon the other is patently dishonest.
As I said, this is bad for music. The evolution of music has always relied on people taking what was done before, isolating it, and using parts of it to build something new. I don't have a musical bone in my body (unless you count an affinity for karaoke), but I did take several music history and theory classes in college. In one, I recall watching a video where Billy Joel was talking about a symphony he'd composed (he does that, apparently), and was really into the melody - only to find out it had been done like 300 years earlier. The point is, there are only so many ways, in western music, to arrange notes into chords, and there are only so many ways to arrange chords into melodies.
Listen to "Blurred Lines" and "Got to Give it up" again. The things they share - the down beats, the "hey hey heys" are obviously both in there, but they're used in radically different ways. In this case, "Blurred Lines" takes what were background elements and brings them to the forefront. In that case, the judge elected to only go by the sheet music for both songs, which turned out to be a stupid decision - songs are, obviously, much more than the written notes that describe them. Now, anyone who thinks about borrowing an element from an earlier work will either seek permission from the original artist, offer them songwriting credit or abstain entirely. sure, this may result in some new, wildly innovative music, but for every song like that there will probably be dozens that never get written.
What blows my fucking mind is that people seem to support this kind of hyper-litigation. Part of it, I think, is standard NIMBYism - the music that we made was cool, and your music sounds like that music, so fuck your music with a rake. People like the idea of upstart, popular musicians getting their comeuppance at the hands of beloved classical acts. It doesn't help, for instance, that by the time the Marvin Gaye controversy started, Robin Thicke had firmly established himself as a huge shitbag. I think it also has to do with the genre of music. If this kind of thinking were applied in broad strokes, every country artist alive would be sued for using a steel guitar. But Thicke and Bruno Mars/Mark Ronson treaded into funk territory, which has a very cult-like fanbase. Their fans were mad because they took funk and made it pop, forgetting that at one time, their funk music was pop.
Copyright law was designed to prevent people from profiting by blatantly ripping off someone else's intellectual property, and in that capacity it does its job just fine. What it wasn't designed for is to give sullen, curmudgeonly artists a means of yelling "get off my lawn" in court, not to mention an easy cash grab. Music isn't made in a vacuum, no matter how badly some people want it to be.
If you want a case of blatant copyright infringement that somehow no one's noticed, take a listen to the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic, "The Phantom of the Opera:"
Now, listen to this shitty Train song, "50 Ways to Say Goodbye:"
Holy shit, right?