Alan Thicke’s son and two of his friends were recently successfully sued by the family of Marvin Gaye on the basis of copyright infringement. The Gaye estate claimed that Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” was a ripoff of Marvin Gaye’s song “Got To Give It Up” which was released in 1977. When I first heard this I wanted to say, “Dear Gaye family, why do you want to have any association with the song “Blurred Lines”?
They were awarded seven million dollars in compensation (ah, that’s why). I’ve listened to both of these songs and I can say without any hesitation that Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” parody is ten times better than either one of these songs.*
*(Note: I realize that in the case of “Blurred Lines” this is mathematically impossible since “Blurred Lines” has a goodness quotient of zero, thus making it impossible for anything to be exponentially better).
That aside, these songs are not the same. And it distresses me that a jury would award such a judgement. On the flip side, though, it pleases me that the people who wrote “Blurred Lines” were penalized seven millions dollars for having written it.
I heard about this on National Public Radio and while this was mentioned because it’s news, the piece really focused on a similar issue that took place some time ago. That was a woman named Anne Bredon suing Led Zeppelin for stealing her song “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” that she performed in a coffee house in 1960. If you look on the Led Zeppelin album cover you’ll see the song is listed as “Traditional” meaning it was written by Adam and Eve and has consequently fallen into the public domain, which would be like a bus shelter.
It was fortunate (I think) that someone recorded Anne’s performance of this song because you can hear a little snippet of it if you listen to the original NPR article. Do this and you’ll come to the exact same conclusion I did: Anne’s song is clearly “Old MacDonald Had A Farm”, albeit in a minor key. On top of that, one of her banjo strings is so out of tune it’s an entire half step flat (hardly a mistake I would say), thus making the chord she’s playing a complete ripoff of the opening theme to the movie Vertigo written by Bernard Herrmann seven years earlier. I would expect the Herrmann estate to file a lawsuit now that I have pointed this out to them. And I’m guessing Anne will lose her house. Now I feel kind of bad for mentioning it. Well, cat’s out the bag. What are you gonna do.
I hadn’t realized how rampant this song suing nonsense was until I recently looked at a list of suits. These generally involved somewhat obscure plaintiffs such as Eugene the Bell Ringer vs The White Stripes or The Estate of Emily Dickinson vs Megadeth, but I was familiar with some high profile cases too, such as Huey Lewis–who wrote “I Want A New Drug”–suing Ray Parker who wrote the Ghostbusters‘ theme for the movie. Lewis won the suit, and I don’t really understand that either given that “Ghostbusters” is kind of a cool song and “I Want A New Drug” ain’t.
Probably the most famous of these suits is Bright Tunes Corporation suing George Harrison for George’s uplifting and spiritually inspiring “My Sweet Lord” as it was musically so similar to their “He’s So Fine.” And they’re right, it is, pretty much note for note. I think they took George for about two million dollars. I suppose they walked away pleased. I have to wonder what Jesus or Krishna thought about this, however. (Attention past and present executives of the Bright Tunes Corporation: Good luck at the Rapture. Or not coming back as a duck.)
Getting back to Al Yankovic for a moment, with all this prickliness over copyright infringement, the concept of “parody” absolutely baffles me. This is actually legal. You can steal somebody’s song, the entire arrangement of the song, change the words, say it’s a “parody”, and just send the actual author a crumb cake for compensation and nobody can do squat about it. Al has made a fortune on this loophole. I asked an attorney how it’s okay for people to get away with this and–after reviewing the precedent set by ASCAP vs Spike Jones–in typical lawyer jargon he said, “Because America is stupid.”
So basically I could take “I Want A New Drug” and make a video singing this:
I want a new rug!
Not too thin or thick.
One that comes with the Scotchgard pile,
And cleans up nice when my cats get sick.
One that’ll match the curtains!
One that’ll just look great!
One that’ll hide the icky stains when my cats regurgitate!
When I’m aloooone with you!
And Huey couldn’t do diddly about it. I don’t know why Harrison’s lawyers didn’t use this when they had the opportunity. Like so:
Judge: Clearly Mr. Harrison’s song is identical to the music of “He’s So Fine”. It’s understood the copying may have been accidental, however, the violation of copyright remains and the plaintiff is entitled to both standard royalties and punitive damages.
Lawyer: It’s a parody.
Lawyer: It’s a parody, your Honor. The song “He’s So Fine” exalts the singer’s boyfriend. Intentionally Mr. Harrison has used the melody to exalt the Almighty Spirit, thus reminding us that it is not those in the material or carnal world which are so fine but, rather, that entity which dwells beyond the firmament and the tangible. Mr. Harrison mocks the superficial aspect of “He’s So Fine” by strongly putting forth “My Sweet Lord–He’s So Fine”–and not somebody’s dweeb boyfriend.
Judge: So you’re saying it’s transformative.
Lawyer: Sure. I mean yes.
Judge: And Mr. Harrison didn’t accidentally copy the melody but deliberately stole it.
Judge: Oh, well there’s nothing wrong with that. Case dismissed.
While Al Yankovic has benefited from other people’s music, he’s always asked permission to parody their songs before doing so even though he doesn’t have to. Clearly he realizes that there is a music community of which he is a part, and consequently respects the other members, by making fun of them. This idea of community, in contrast to the corporate paradigm, is best summed up by B.B. King with his succinct, “We all borrow”. And we do. All sorts of stuff sounds like other stuff. John Williams Oscar winning “original” score for Star Wars is Erich Korngold’s score for Kings Row, “Blurred Lines” is actually “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey” (wow, so hip), newcomer Garret Born’s “Dopamine” is the Bee Gee’s “More Than A Woman”, and Rachel Newton’s take on “Queen of Elfan’s Nourice” slips dangerously close into “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It” territory.
There are only about seven notes we have to work with (five if you’re Japanese) (one if you’re writing for didgeridoo). And there are only so many ways to rearrange this limited supply (especially with the tricky didgeridoo scale). So if you’re looking for a financial payoff, become proficient at your instrument and hit the road. In the meantime, if you happen to hear somebody doing some of your notes, your beat, or your riff, don’t be litigious, be flattered.