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Op-Ed: It's not just Blurred Lines — Plagiarism in music is everywhere

By James Walker     Mar 17, 2015 in Music
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' Blurred Lines lost a $7.4m plagiarism lawsuit last week to Marvin Gaye's Got to Give it Up. This case isn't alone though as defining copyrighted music can be tricky with many tracks based on essentially the same idea.
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' Blurred Lines lost a $7.4m plagiarism lawsuit earlier this week to Marvin Gaye's Got to Give it Up. This case isn't alone as defining copyrighted music can be tricky with many tracks based on essentially the same idea.
Hundreds of songs have been written around the same timeless four chord sequence yet they co-exist peacefully without any disruption by artists. Customised to various degrees with different melodies and lyrics, could the tracks still be regarded as the same? Certainly, they share the same core.
Many believe that the current system of copyright law is inappropriate for use in the music industry. Supporters of a change in the law indicate how another famous chord sequence, the 12-bar blues, has inspired thousands of songs for decades.
Dan Charmas of The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music Professor told NewsWeek: "I don’t think our system of copyright law really understands not only electronic music or contemporary postmodern music, [but] I don’t think it much understands American music. I think American music is largely based on the blues. Blues is largely based on one chord progression. There’s been an infinite number of songs based on one chord progression."
Plagiarism can be much easier to detect in other forms of media such as literature. It is normally pretty easy to tell when detail has been taken from somebody else for use in an essay or novel, even if this is easier to do than ever with the era of copy and paste.
This form of plagiarism can be detected by editors, tutors and professors with professional tools like Unplag.com who note when a text seems inconsistent with a writer's normal style. Furthermore, online detectors and machine learning can automatically identify familiar passages from other works.
Plagiarism of music can be harder to pin down however, partially because there are fewer chord progressions and notes to play with than there are words and phrases in the English language. Blurred Lines does sound similar to Marvin Gaye's Got to Give it Up but where should the line be drawn between "inspired by" and "stolen from"?
This is an important question beginning to enter court rooms and one that Professor Charmas worries could end up harming not only the music industry but also how people experience and create music. He said: "Judges and juries, they're not musicologists. They only know what they feel. I worry that artists will become too obsessed with not copying, or not paying homage. There will be too many impediments to the free flow of creativity."
Aspects of many popular songs new and old can be found in songs that came before them. The "plagiarism" covers all genres of music with soundtrack and orchestral pieces often drawing particular attention. Even classical composers have come under scrutiny for copying the work of their forbears.
Many in the music industry wonder how the Blurred Lines verdict is going to impact future lawsuits and indeed musical compositions. With plagiarism seemingly an unavoidable "feature" of the industry, barriers may have to be created that would not ordinarily be in place.
This could create fragile divides in music genres and even deter future composers away from the art, something that everybody is keen to avoid. Although no-one is suggesting that all the artists of songs based around the G-D-C chord progression should be suing each other in a great chronological cascade, the verdict on Blurred Lines could cause repercussions across the industry in future years to come.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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