24
Jan 2017

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Written by Raychel

Source // giphy

While the Australian government continues to try to block access to certain torrenting sites, and corporate big-wigs compare internet pirates to heroin dealers, the issue of music copyright has taken something of a back-seat in the recent years.  With the prevalence of legal online streaming services, the contentious amount of music royalties paid by these streaming services, and the decrease in live music venues, the everyday musician is in perpetual financial struggleville.  According to a 2011 report by Ernst & Young, the average annual income for a professional musician ranges from $7,000 to $12, 000.

Copyright for musicians is pretty important. It safeguards their creative rights against others who attempt to profit (without permission) from said work.  What constitutes copyright infringement differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but what the below cases illustrate is that it’s not as black and white as most of the legislation accounts for.

 

George Harrison v The Chiffons

The superb all-female Bronx group, The Chiffons recorded a catchy-as-hell tune named “He’s So Fine” in December 1962.  George Harrison recorded “My Sweet Lord” in 1970 and it became the biggest-selling single of 1971 in the UK.  In February 1971 Bright Tunes Music Corporation (who owned the rights to “He’s So Fine”) went to court, alleging that Harrison’s song plagiarised “He’s So Fine”.  When the case finally made it trial in February 1976, the judge ruled in favour of Bright Tunes, stating that Harrison had committed “subconscious” plagiarism, with the two songs being basically the same bar some minor note and chord differences.

Damages were due to be assessed in November 1976, but were delayed until February 1981.  By this time, Harrison’s former manager (and legal adviser during the first phase of the case) had purchased Bright Tunes and was now technically the plaintiff.  Eventually Harrison agreed to actually buy Bright Tunes, however litigation continued for another 17 years until March 1998 when it was eventually settled.

Aside from the fact that this is actually one of the longest cases in American history (27 years in total), the judgment from this case changed the way the industry viewed plagiarism and music copyright. According to the law, it was now possible to plagiarise a song and not realise it.

 

Vanilla “anything less than the best is felony” Ice v Queen & David Bowie

The main difference between this copyright case and most others is that Ice intentionally copied the most-excellent bass line from David Bowie and Queen’s tune “Under Pressure” for his 1990 breakthrough hit “Ice, Ice Baby”.  

This case raised discussion regarding the ability of copyright legislation to protect both the financial and creative interests of artists.  Whilst Ice settled out of court and Queen and Bowie were financially compensated, both Queen and Bowie will forever be associated with a song they had no intention of being part of.  Such an association could be incredibly damaging for other artists in a similar predicament, and the question arises as to whether copyright legislation can and should protect artists from this type of damage.

 

Robin Thicke & Pharrell v Marvin Gaye

Released in March 2013, “Blurred Lines” was, IMHO, a creepy song that encouraged rape culture.  It was also banned across 20 UK student unions, with the song not allowed to be played at functions within union spaces due to its glorification of sexual violence against women.

Now, if that isn’t bad enough, the family of the late soul-legend Marvin Gaye, alleged the song infringed Gaye’s funktastic 1977 hit “Got To Give It Up”.  Gaye’s family took Thicke & Pharrell to court, where a judge ordered the pair pay $7.3 million dollars to Gaye’s family.  This was later decreased to $5.3 million, with Gaye’s family also receiving 50% of the song’s future royalties.  

What makes this particular case so interesting and substantially different from previous cases is that the actual sheet music of each song is not remarkably similar.  The determining factor was the vibe; the Gayes successfully claimed that such elements as the use of the cowbell and background chatter equated to copyright infringement.  This case is now up for appeal, and the outcome will have significant impacts on copyright law should it be determined to extend to concepts, styles and techniques.

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