Where are all the lawsuits heading?

by Rhian Jones

“It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to,” says a quote widely attributed to film director, Jean Luc-Godard. “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” said Picasso. And discussing the creation of Macintosh, Steve Jobs said: “It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done, and then trying to bring those things in to what you’re doing. We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” Taking inspiration from the work of others in order to create something new happens in all creative fields. In the music industry, it’s a similar story. Artists will happily list whose work they’ve been inspired by, musical genres are heavily influenced by what’s gone before, and samples, remixes and references are also, of course, regular features of new work.

But over the last few years, you might have noticed a growing trend of a different kind of attribution creeping in. One that, well, in my opinion, doesn’t really make much sense. A trend that’s based on a song possibly/maybe/if you-squint-a-bit perhaps sounding like another song. One of the most recent examples of this is the late Juice Wrld getting sued for his Lucid Dreams which, according to the lawsuit, rips of Holly Wood Died by emo band Yellowcard. Lana Del Rey has been accused of copying Radiohead’s Creep for her own Get Free, The Script sued James Arthur for his hit Say You Won’t Let Go, and Lizzo is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over her own Truth Hurts, which writers Justin and Jeremiah Raisen claim they are owed a credit on for a line that Lizzo says was actually lifted from a meme.

This flurry of recent lawsuits arrive following the Blurred Line case which resulted in a victory for the Marvin Gaye Estate, who were awarded $5.3m in damages for owning the copyright for a song that inspired ‘the vibe’ of another. At the time, the verdict was warned to have set a worrying precedent that risks limiting the creativity of musicians and composers. History has proven that warning to be correct, and it’s a precedent that, as pointed out in a recent MBW article, one lawyer in particular is exploiting to the max — Richard Busch, who represented the Marvin Gaye Estate, also repped the Script and
Yellowcard. Speak to any music industry exec of yore, and they’ll probably tell you that the fun left the music business when the lawyers got involved. It’s starting to feel like that statement is truer today as it ever was.

It’s not uncommon for songwriting sessions to start with a chat about influences and inspirations, perhaps even listening to other songs. This process has clearly resulted in some pretty good tunes; to name a few: The Stroke’s Last Nite, which mirrors the intro to Tom Petty’s American Girl, the Prince-esque Make Me Feel by Janelle Monae, and it’s clear to hear the similarities between Locked Out of Heaven by Bruno Mars and Roxanne by The Police. If a song obviously samples another, it is of course fair to attribute it as such. If a song was loosely inspired by another, does the writer of that original song really deserve a share of the revenue? Just because something is possible legally, doesn’t mean it’s right.

Times aren’t great for songwriters at the moment, who have a small slice of the streaming revenue pie. Cutting into that even further by attributing credits to people who weren’t even in the room when the song was written, and have likely already enjoyed a successful career (especially if they were around during the CD boom), only has the potential to make times even harder. And it’s not difficult to see how many creative restraints could be imposed on songwriting in future, over fear of being sued for something being used as a reference point.

Which leads nicely (or not so nicely), into the future of AI-generated music. Anyone who’s seen the 4 Chord Song by Axis of Awesome will understand how much homogeneity there is in pop music and why, with a limited number of notes to choose from, it was only a matter of time until things started repeating themselves. Yet as explained in an MBW interview early last year, Director of Spotify’s Creator Technology Research Lab, François Pachet, has hopes that AI will “change music, bringing fresh material, new ideas, new melodies, new chord harmonies, new chord progressions, and also new sounds and new ways to combine sounds.” The way he sees it, AI will be “assisting the Lennon that needs a McCartney”. Sounds like pretty bad news for McCartney. Is that the kind of future we want?

This column appeared in the Q4 2019 issue of MBW’s quarterly MBUK magazine