Monday, March 16, 2015

A Riff By Any Other Name... or How the Robin Thicke Verdict Isn't the End of the World.

The time has come for me to chime in on the recent copyright controversy surrounding the song "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke, co-written and produced by Pharrell Williams.    The big question on everyone's lips is:  Is this the beginning something terrible?  The answer is, no, this is the continuation of something terrible.

Firstly, this same thing happened in the early 2000's and no one gave a crap, because it happened to Puff Daddy, P-dity, Dity, or whatever his name is currently, ore was at the time.   He lifted the riff from the Police song "Every Breath You Take," and changed the chorus enough that is technically wasn't the same melody, and thought that he shouldn't have to credit Sting as the songwriter, after all, the riff is not the song, and Sting admittedly didn't "write" the riff, it was created by band member Andy Summers.  It's worth noting that Sting's manager, the originally musical gangster, Miles Copeland and his posse sued Dity for the ditty, and won complete ownership of the song.   It is the biggest hit of Sting's carrer, and Andy Summers got.... a heartfelt thank you.   Because in the antiquated system of copyright that we still work under, his world is not protected, just the song writer.

Copyright law has little to do with contemporary music.  Technically the copyright on a song is based on the 1600's German system of music notation and a 1923 law, so it is of course completely irrelevant to contemporary music.   If you transcribe the melody of a song into measures, and to to nearest half tone, and they "look" the same on the page, even if your song is nothing like it, BAM!  You've violated copyright.

Let's call our second witness to the stand, George Harrison's, "My Sweet Lord."   This is a classic example of the classic copyright law getting it wrong, wrong, wrong.   The gun wielding Phil Spector, the producer on that song, who is the inventor or drenched in reverb style of "He's So Fine," from back in the 50's. Despite the fact that the songs were a world apart, dealt with different subject matter, and instrumentation was different, and the songs were literally a world away,  the original publisher of "He's So Fine"  won 100% of  the royalties on the Harrison song, and Harrison got a case of writer's block that lasted for years, worried that he could steal something without even knowing it.   This is classic melody similarity that the law states.   If this were the only arbiter, then Bob Dylan could cover any song and pay no royalties, because he doesn't hit one out of every three notes his sings, and he puts lots of extra notes in along the way.

Speaking of ol' Jack Frost, Mr.D, won a judgement against Hootie and the Blowfish in the 90's.   Their super-hit "I Only Want To Be With You" featured a "quote" from Dylan's "Idiot Wind,"  along with attributing the quote to Bob Dylan in the lyrics, but not in the "by line."   The melody was in no way similar, but the two lines that were obviously taken from a Dylan song were enough to set them back a few bills in their royalty accounts.  So taking words, without melody, also a no-no.   Having said that I took a line from one of my songs from a Rolling Stones song.   Go over to iTunes, download my whole catalog, find the line, and I will send the 79 cents I get from that song to Jagger and Richards.

The truth is courts have been handing down crappy music copyright decisions for a long time.   The Beatles "Come Together" features a line (with a word change) from Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me," and it was enough for John Lennon to make a deal with the music publishers who controlled Chuck's publishing rights, not Chuck himself, because he is a black man who signed his record deal in the 1950's and was therefore ripped off, that he would record an album of songs that they controlled the copyright on and make them some money.  This was John Lennon's "Rock and Roll" album.

So, back to "Blurred Lines."   In today's cut and paste culture, where ownership gets foggy it's customary to, if you steal someone's riff, or sample someone, or any other identifiable part of someone else's song, to give them a cut of the songwriting credit, and subsequently the royalties.   For example, TLC's mega-hit "Waterfalls" is credited to TLC and Melissa Etheridge, and she got a 1/4 of a zillion dollars in exchange for doing NOTHING but having her song re-written by someone else.   Sounds good to me, and to her too, this is standard operating procedure.   This is also why KD Lane is the co-writer of the Rolling Stones "Has Anybody Seen My Baby," because of it's similarities to her hit "Constant Craving." And this is what Blurred Lines' composers didn't do.   Did anyone who was familiar with Marvin Gaye's greatest hits not hear "Blurred Line," and say, hey, that is totally like that Marvin Gaye grove?   Thought not.   Their crime?  They didn't cut him in on the deal.

Like Sean "Puffy" Combs before them, the songwriters (re-writers) knew they borrowed HEAVILY from Marvin Gaye, but thought they had twisted it just enough to avoid giving him (his children) a percentage.   Had they simply included him as a "co-writer" then they would have had to give him 1/3 of the $12 they made on Spotify and there would be no lawsuit.   But they got greedy, and they got caught, and because of that they have lost complete control of the royalties, because the judge has found the work to be "derivative" of a copyrighted word, in other words a copy.   Which in a rare case for me, I agree with the screwed up copyright system in the US, they totally rewrote the Marvin Gaye song and called it their own.

So to sum up, US copyright law is screwed up when it comes to music,  Furthermore none of this will be changed because of... THE MOUSE.    When Walt Disney signed his copyright deal it was for life plus 20 years.   This was so that he would be taken care of for life, and his children would get a big bunch of money, and the copyright would eventually lapse and the work would be put into public domain.  But every time that deal is about to lapse, the US congress passes a new copyright law that extends these copyrights.   30 years, then 50 and then 70, and this affects all contemporary copyrights, including music.   Any changes to copyright that don't make major handouts to US entertainment corporations will not pass congress, so don't expect any changes soon.

So, it's not the end of the world, it just the continuation of everything exactly as it is. 

1 comment:

THUMPER said...

I think Robin Thicke got what he deserved merely for the fact that when he sings he warbles like he as a rubber band around his nuts. That is all.