The Copyright And Debate In Music Industry
This essay will be discussing copyright and the debate on whether the music industry can remain sustainable financially, allow new artists to creatively evolve the art form and protect rights to previous works. In 2019 alone, there has already been 5 plus high profile music copyright cases regarding hit songs. One of the most high-profile cases was ‘Blurred Lines’- Pharrell and Robin Thicke Vs ‘Got to give it up’- Marvin Gaye. These larger lawsuits are often latched with multi-million pounds/dollars financial claims and could tarnish a new artists’ name- assuming they plagiarised a song. The judge, Nguyen as cited in O’Connor, on the ‘Blurred Lines’ case said that the win of the case of ‘Got to Give it up’ ‘sets a dangerous precedent that strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere’ (O’Connor, 2018). So, what is the state of copyright laws? And what does the future hold?
Copyright is an important part of the music industry, as it allows for songwriters, composers and producers to have a right to dictate the future uses of their music, as well as getting rightfully paid for their musical works. This can be done by songwriters joining the PRS and PLL ‘who are committed to protecting the value of music and ensuring their members are represented’ (PRS, 2019). This also helps Major labels and Independent labels to receive their cut of songs once the money has been successfully split to the artists. This allows for artists to protect their intellectual property, be paid for writing credits on sold copies of released music- physical or streaming-and be paid for live performances of their music. Songwriters have various roles in creating music but usually work writing songs at home, solely or collaboratively, or in studios. Skills a songwriter needs includes; forming lyrical phrases and some music theory to develop melodies and chords for a song. UK copyright comes under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988 and it is a property act attributed to original literary, musical, dramatic or artistic works (Thakrar, 2019). Typically, in the UK, copyright lasts for 50-70 years and within this time, the artist is allowed full control over each element of their song and its usage. Copyright laws can vary from country to country, and laws are different between the UK and USA for example, but some similarities are seen in the laws that govern music protection.
Regarding the ‘Blurred Lines’ vs ‘Got to give it up lawsuit, controversy over this case arose as the songs in themselves did not sound similar enough in many people’s eyes to support the $5.3 million in damages to be paid to the Gaye Estate (O’Connor, 2018). ‘Blurred Lines’, 2013, and ‘Got to give it up’, 1977, are not objectively similar, they differ in melody, harmony and rhythm (Nguyen cited in O’Connor, 2018). As a result of winning the case, in the future the Marvin Gaye estate will receive 50% of royalties the song generates. In 2016, 200 artists signed an appeal letter to have the ruling overturned, but this has proved futile. The court filings by the artists said that the judgement would stifle creativity and impede the creative process, eliminating a meaningful line between inspiration and unlawful copying (O’Connor, 2018). This is one of the issues that the copyright debate creates in terms of ‘fairness’ for the artist who likely would have created a song with no intention to rip off a previous song.
This issue arose again with ‘Thinking out loud’ by Ed Sheeran in comparison to ‘Let’s get it on’ where Ed Townsend, it’s co-writer, launched a $100 million suit over the use of the chord progression and a similar ‘feel’ of the two songs from drum and bass elements. This is an example of a case that faced dispute as an artist cannot ‘own’ a chord progression used in a song. So why are some copyright claims not well founded? One of the reasons for this is the fact that when it comes to chord progressions, they don’t come under the copyright protection- and this is because there is only a certain amount of chord progressions available to be used in music. Ed Townsend claimed that Ed Sheeran used the same chord progression, bass line and the same tempo, but these have been used even before Gaye’s song. ‘From a musical and historical perspective, copying bass lines from earlier works to create new compositions is the foundation of how western music was developed’ (Neely, 2018). This use is called ‘cantus firmus’ and is something that has been used in terms of bass lines since the middle ages. More recently in 20th century jazz there has been the use of ‘contrafact’ ‘using one songs chord progression to write another melody’ (Neely, 2018). The chord progression for ‘Let’s get it on’ is: I, iii, iv, v whereas ‘Thinking out loud’ has the chord progression of: I, i6, iv,v, and this creates a flaw in the suit. The suit argues the chord progression is the same but even though the i6 and iii sound the same, and function the same, they are not the same chord (iii in this case is F#m but the i6 is D/F# a different chord). Does it mean that you can own a functional pattern? And does that mean going forward songwriters can be challenged for using the same chords in the same structure even if it is over a differing melody? – and ‘Let’s get it on’ and ‘Thinking out loud’ do not share any melodic similarities at all.
Issues for the music industry are not only that less work might be created out of unfair copyright claims; there are also the financial implications. An example of this can be seen again from the ‘Blurred Lines’ case where Pharrell’s publishing company had to pay £282,296 out of the $5million pay-out (Savage, 2018). This is something that could reduce the number of artists signed if record labels start to take big financial hits from lawsuits with large pay outs. This as a result could reduce the attractiveness of the music industry as other industries might be less likely to invest in an artist if they see that a copyright case could affect advertising- making the industry financially unstable. ‘The recorded music industry was worth $19.1 billion in 2018 which was almost double-digit gain (9.7%) from the year prior, when the global business only rose by 7.4%’ (McIntyre, 2019). This shows the importance of the music industry as a financial source for artists and other roles in the industry: executives, producers, A and R’s and so much more. If a copyright solution is not reached that will find a way to be fairer to previous works and new current works that are being created, it will be hard to see how the industry will continue to evolve successfully.
Not all copyright claims face controversy, and some are peacefully resolved from both sides. An example of that can be seen with the Ariana Grande song ‘7 Rings’ which interpolated the phrasing from ‘My Favourite Things’ Julie Andrews from ‘The Sound of Music’. Ariana’s team reached out to the songwriters of the song Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers and in this decision, 90% of the future royalties of ‘7 Rings’ will go to the ‘My Favourite Things’ writers- this settlement was agreed outside court. Most recently there is a copyright fight that is about to begin over the song ‘Lucid Dreams’, 2018, written by Juice Wrld. As of the 21st October 2019, the Pop Punk band Yellowcard are suing Juice Wrld for $15 million and a running royalty payment for the future earnings of the song (Billboard, 2019). They believe it shares a similar melodic phrase to their song ‘Holly Wood Died’, 2006. To take this further, the band is also claiming for damages from money made from public appearances and concert tours as the song had ‘overwhelming success’ for him as an artist (Billboard ,2019).
All these examples raise the issue of to what extent copyright should be used, allowing artists to have the freedom to create new music without fear of being sued. Every artist has been influenced by ones that have come before, and that is what is causing the debate, because influence and plagiarism are two very different lines which are becoming harder to identify. By allowing for these decisions to be made by juries who are likely to not able fully understand the musical impacts of incorrect copyright wins, the ‘Blurred Lines’ case has opened the door for more claims that might not be strongly grounded to win in court. This creates a problem for the future of the music industry and creation of songs, as it means that songwriters who are lucky and have a moment of inspiration leading to a hit song, could have the possibility of being sued based on small, if any, similarities to a song that has been written previously. The future of copyright laws remains uncertain as it is unknown how to implement protection for old pieces of music whilst allowing for influences of previous music in new creations.
- Billboard, 2019. Juice Wrld Hit With $15M ‘Lucid Dreams’ Copyright Lawsuit From Pop Punks Yellowcard. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 October 2019]
- Forbes, McIntyre. H., 2019. The Global Music Industry hot $19 Billion in Sales in 2018, Rising by Almost 10%. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 November 2019]
- Open Mic UK, Thakar .K., 2019. Music Copyright UK. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 November 2019]
- PRS, 2019. What we do. [online] Available at: < https://www.prsformusic.com/what-we-do > [Accessed 14 November 2019]
- The BBC, Savage .M., 2018. Blurred Lines: Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay $5m in final verdict.[online] Available at: [Accessed 9 November 2019]
- The Independent, O’Connor. R., 2018. Blurred Lines final verdict: Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay $5m to Marvin Gaye family. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 October 2019]
- Adam Neely, 2019. Why the Ed Sheeran Lawsuit makes no sense. Available at: [Accessed 9 November 2019]