Joel Furniss: What’s Going On? The lines between homage and plagiarism remain blurred

Joel Furniss, Ashton KCJ solicitors. Picture submitted.

Joel Furniss, Ashton KCJ solicitors. Picture submitted. - Credit: Archant

Judgment in the recent 'Blurred Lines trial' in the US awarded over $7.3m to the family of Marvin Gaye.

Some famous examples of musical plagiarism help to contextualise this surprising ruling that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke copied Gaye's 'Got To Give It Up' - surprising because here the talk was of a 'vibe' or 'feel', rather than lyrics, melodies or chord progression typical in accusations of musical copyright infringement.

Due to melodic similarities between Sam Smith's 'Stay With Me' and Tom Petty's 'I Won't Back Down' a songwriting credit and royalties were agreed. Similarly, Radiohead gave co-writing kudos to Albert Hammond because the opening notes of angst-ridden anthem 'Creep' bore startling similarity to 'The Air That I Breathe'.

Bespectacled Beatle John Lennon agreed to record Chuck Berry's 'You Can't Catch Me' for his covers album 'Rock N Roll' - the very song which had been lyrically poached for 'Come Together', and (then) Cat Stevens secured a 75% share of royalties for the Flaming Lips 'Fight Test' due to its melodic interchangeability with future Boyzone cover 'Father & Son'.

Gaye, inspired to seek his 'answer song' to Johnnie Taylor's 'Disco Lady', had originally entitled 'Got To Give It Up' as 'Dancing Lady'. Ironically, this theme of homage continued in the trial testimony of Williams and Thicke.


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The other cases referenced above all go to clear musical similarity, lyrically, melodically or structurally, thereby meeting US copyright infringement criteria. 'Blurred Lines' simply does not borrow from 'Got To Give It Up' in any of these ways. To the naked ear, a funky bassline with a cow bell and some falsetto may sound similar, but if this were to establish a new threshold for plagiarism then musical development would grind to a halt for fear of widespread litigation.

Although legally questionable, this outcome is extremely positive - and not just because everyone's had enough of Blurred Lines now. Casually incorporating someone's 'vibe', writing a song in 30 minutes and cashing in for $14m is morally questionable. If 'artists' are encouraged to take a step back and dig a little deeper in the ever more challenging quest for genuine originality, that's surely a happy legacy. After all, ain't nothing like the real thing.

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• Joel Furniss, commercial solicitor, Ashton KCJ

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