“You Stole My Music!” Issues of Chords and Copyright Across Genres

In previous centuries, what was called “quotation” of musical material (or using excerpts of another composer’s works within one’s own works) was not something to be ashamed of. The idea of musical quotation actually demonstrated musical prowess of the person who created his or her artwork to be referenced by later composers. For example, scholars argue that they can hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” theme in Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which was composed about 40 years later. Yet, in the twenty-first century, attitudes toward musical ownership have radically changed. A recent example  is a court case that was ruled on in March of this year involving Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. against the estate of Marvin Gaye. Robin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines” is allegedly a take-off of Marvin Gaye’s song, “Got to Give It Up,” which was released in 1977. The “Blurred Lines” team lost the case, ultimately owing over $7 million to the Gaye estate.

There are, predictably, two sides to this issue: the musical side and the legal side. Let’s take a look at the musical side first to determine what exactly the artists are disputing. The melody, or the vocal line, is not the same in each piece. Whereas Marvin Gaye’s song seems to ascend and focus on the upper register of his voice, Robin Thicke’s song seems to do the opposite, concentrating on his lower register and intermixing vocal lyricism with rap. Additionally, the themes discussed in the pieces are different as well; whereas “Got to Give It Up” talks about releasing one’s inhibitions to dance at a party, “Blurred Lines” takes a seductive, and arguably, demeaning approach to getting a girl’s attention. Gaye’s piece also has several instrumental breaks in between verses, which are not as noticeable in Robin Thicke’s piece until the end.

The shared harmonies [involving anything heard in the background, such as chord progressions (or the way that the chords move from one to the next), the bass line (the notes played by the lowest instrument heard in the song, etc.)] are the questionable parts to these pieces. If you look at the picture below, you will see excerpts of the bass lines of both songs. DISCLAIMER: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO POSSESS ANY KNOWLEDGE OF MUSIC THEORY TO UNDERSTAND THIS!

Blurred-Lines-Bass-Line-2

By just eyeballing the image, you can see that the rhythms of the notes found in the bass lines of both songs do not happen at exactly the same time; otherwise, the notes seen in each picture would line up directly with one another (just imagine trying to draw a straight line with a ruler through these notes…it doesn’t always work now, does it?). That being said, the rhythm is already one way in which these two examples diverge harmonically from one another. By listening to these songs and singling out each bass line (basically, just listen to the instrumental part and block the vocal part out), you can tell that they aren’t even in the same key (Marvin Gaye’s song is higher), another factor which causes the bass lines of the two songs to contrast. Below you will find a video of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and a video of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” to help you discern the musical similarities and differences between the works.

Ok, so now that we have looked at the musical side of the issue, let’s take a glimpse at this dilemma from the legal standpoint to see what has contributed to its popularity amongst our tabloids. With music copyright cases becoming more prevalent, courts have had trouble deciding whether to interpret the law using the “Ordinary Audience Approach,” implying that the discrepancies debated must be recognizable by people who do not study music, or the “Specialized Audience Approach,” which involves a more complex musical analysis (employing the expertise of music scholars and theorists in court) due to the fact that an audience of non-musicians may downplay the issues of intellectual property (or one’s ownership in theory of a song) at hand. With these approaches in mind, courts may either limit themselves to melody, harmony, and rhythm, or go beyond the scope of these basic musical concepts to look at clusters of pitches (a bunch of notes not necessarily found in one key played at the same time) and color (or vocal or instrumental quality) of the sound. Duration of a particular phrase also plays an important role in court discretion. For example, the decision made in the case, Newton v. Diamond  held that a three-note pattern taken from a flute solo and used by the Beastie Boys was not long and musically substantial enough to present a copyright problem.

We see where the decision made in the “Blurred Lines” case does not match the precedent set in the Newton v. Diamond case, if we were able to point out an abundance of musical differences between this song and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Do you think that courts should rule on a case by case basis, or should they adopt the “Ordinary Audience Approach” or “Specialized Audience Approach” to make rulings more universal? With so many genres of music that have been put on the market for decades, do you think it is fair for composers and artists to claim rights to basic musical patterns or chord progressions, or do you think that as a society, we should look at copyright issues through the 19th century perspective of paying homage to composers through musical quotation, rather than stealing?

Scroll to the VERY, VERY bottom of the page (past the Works Cited, until you can’t scroll anymore) or go to the “Thoughts on You Stole My Music…” section to leave your comments. Check out the “Help! What Do I Write About?” tab if you have questions about what to discuss musically, or even if you have writer’s block!

Works Cited:

Growe, Kory. “Robin Thicke, Pharrell Lose Multi-Million ‘Blurred Lines’ Lawsuit.” RollingStone 10 March 2015. Web.

Hochberg, William. “Walking the Bass Line: How Original Does a Riff Need to Be in the Post-“‘Blurred Lines”‘ World.” Bass Musician Magazine 1 April 2015. Web. 6 July 2015.

Korn, Alan. “Issues Facing Legal Practitioners in Measuring Substantiality in Contemporary Musical Expression.” Review of Intellectual Property Law 489 (2007): 1-14. LexisNexis. Web. 3 July 2015.

Kriptking. “Got to Give It Up-Marvin Gaye.” YouTube. YouTube, 23 March 2011. Web. 3 July 2015.

RobinThickeVEVO. “Robin Thicke-Blurred Lines ft. T.I., Pharrell.” YouTube. YouTube, 20 March 2013. Web. 3 July 2015.

6 thoughts on ““You Stole My Music!” Issues of Chords and Copyright Across Genres

  1. I think copyright laws should be based on intent. If there are similarities in style, that’s fine, there are finite combinations available. If a songwriter intends to “copy” another song, save a few changes, like a child copying from an encylopedia, then they should not
    Collect he royalties.

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  2. In my opinion, the highest form of a compliment is by imitating someone else. If a piece of work were not good then people would not want to copy it.

    The two pieces above may have some similarities, but if you put all of the songs that have been produced throughout history next to each other, you will undoubtedly find that there will be parallels between songs.

    Maybe if the lawyers were not involved, there wouldn’t be so may blurred lines!

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  3. I: “Maybe if the lawyers were not involved, there wouldn’t be so may blurred lines!” LOL! Good one! *tips hat*

    Being a pretty big TV/film soundtrack fan, I can say that there’s plenty of musical “quotation” from time to time – the most relatable example I can think of at the moment is the music which plays over the ending/credits of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (composed by John Williams) which incorporated the main melody of “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio. The track listing explicitly acknowledged that the melody had been incorporated, presumably for legal reasons. Steven Spielberg, who wrote and directed Close Encounters, explicitly cited “When You Wish Upon a Star” as a major influence on the script. As such, the homage/quotation argument definitely works here, from the standpoint of a writer wanting to pay tribute to a major source of inspiration for him.

    From that perspective, I’m more in favor of taking a homage mentality, unless common sense tells you it’s a blatant unacknowledged ripoff of someone else’s work. Then again, original soundtracks are an entirely different world from Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke. I’m not entirely sure if the “homage” mentality would completely work in a non-soundtrack atmosphere, but I don’t think the world would implode if some artist decided to borrow a harmony or rhythm line from another artist’s work.

    I do think that the “Specialized Audience Approach” would go over a lot of people’s heads with the net result that most will just consider it overkill, shrug and mumble “OK, I’ll take your word for it”. These sorts of lawsuits are probably the price we pay for living in an overly litigious society, although that’s a whole other can of worms in of itself (hey, it’s better than the alternative of challenging someone to a duel).

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  4. The ability to capture a musical phrase or sound (not necessarily musical) with electronic manipulation exists. For example, I can take en exerpt from “Ode to joy”, digitally copy it, digitally reverse it, and get ideas or blatantly use my ‘creation’ any way I want to. No musical training is necessary. All too easy. A person would have to decide for himself or herself the morality and value attached to the exercise. An unethical person is just looking for ‘easy money’. Unfortunately, the ‘popular’ music business today concerns itself with flattering picture poses, easy sucess, and over-hype. This week’s new ‘star’. Anyone with a decent computer can come up with something sellable. Easily. That said, lets evaluate any 20 odd books. What are the chances that at least two of those books have the same sentences represented in their pages? Now extend that to all the books written. Then extend that thinking to all the individual words represented (and i’m only talking about english words now). Are the same sentences copyrite theft? It is the cultural value inherent in the exercise of art that lifts it above the ordinary, an exercise that leaves the listener (and performer) with a hope of more and better things to come. Another basic example. What good parent would limit their child’s diet to synthetic macaroni and cheese? Do we only eat what we are easily sold? No. Unthinkable. We go for the richest content available to us, to make our child’s mind active and absorbent, helping them to think critically, but openly, guiding them to be better than we are (hopefully), discriminating values, and going on to something better. Music as a high art is one of the guideposts of living. We decide it’s value for ourselves. Maybe I digress. Now strech your thinking a bit. Go outside and stand in the sunlight. What you feel on your skin is the effects of light waves, producing heat. Slowed down greatly, those same waves would produce sound. Although we probably take it for granted, think of it’s value, or more succinctly, what depends on it’s existence? Let me quote a very popular book, “Let there be light. And it was so”. When we make music, are we knowledgeably plagiarizing God? I hope so.

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  5. This is a common issue, many of the songs seem to be parallel when you compare it with others. If the style of the song is different or unique, then you can adapt to it, and also it is important to check out the copyright laws.

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