Can any piece of music be one-hundred-per-cent original? (Discuss)

The latest ruling by an American judge means that the book appears to have finally closed for Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, in their efforts to overturn March’s ruling that they had plagiarized Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up” in their composition of the Summer 2013 international smash hit “Blurred Lines”. There will be no re-trial, despite Thicke and Williams’s determination to appeal – though the judge, John A Kronstadt, did agree to reduce the amount of damages that they had to pay the Gaye estate, from $7.3 million to $5.3 million.

The March ruling sent shockwaves throughout the music world. Fair enough, when it came out two years ago “Blurred Lines” attracted more controversy for its allegedly misogynistic video and lyrics (controversy that led to the song being banned on several university campuses, including Queens University Belfast), but the “Got to Give It Up” ruling may well have meant that songwriters would henceforth have to declare not just which artist(s) they copied lines and melodies from, but also which artist(s) influenced them and the song. “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” do certainly have a similar beat and structure, and Thicke and Williams did admit at the time that Marvin Gaye had influenced them. Gaye’s family, however, consider the stars to have plagiarized his 1977 hit, and now two courts of law have agreed with them.

Robin Thicke
Robin Thicke

This idea – that songwriters should also declare who influences them as well as which songs and pieces of music they copy from – may well have implications for other music composers. In May, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars added a writing credit to their huge hit “Uptown Funk” to the writers of the Gap Band’s 1979 release “Oops Upside Your Head”, owing to the similarities between parts of the two songs. One of the original six credited writers of “Uptown Funk” (there are now officially eleven) told Billboard magazine ‘Everyone is being a little more cautious. Nobody wants to be involved in a lawsuit.‘ Such caution was evident even before the March “Blurred Lines” ruling: in January it was revealed that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne had been given songwriting credits on Sam Smith’s debut hit “Stay With Me”. Smith’s publishers came to an agreement with those of Petty and Lynne, amid the striking similarities between “Stay With Me” and Petty’s 1989 song “I Won’t Back Down”, although Smith had said he had never previously heard “I Won’t Back Down”. The settlement was amicable, with Petty remarkingAll my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen.

But at what point does such caution go over the top? Everybody who has ever been involved in performing and writing music has dozens of influences, and surely no one piece of music can ever be said to be 100 per cent original? The challenge is how best to navigate the blurred line (there’s that term again) between creative influence on the one hand, and outright theft on the other.

Very often, similarities between different pieces of music are purely unintentional. The classic case is that of George Harrison’s 1971 solo hit “My Sweet Lord”, over which he was in 1976 required to pay over $1.5 million in damages to the publishers of The Chiffons’ 1963 song “He’s So Fine”, due to the uncanny similarities between the melodies of both songs. Harrison was quoted as saying he became paranoid about writing anything new for some time after the ruling. There was a similar controversy in the 1960s, when British courts ordered all royalties for the Doors’ 1968 song “Hello, I Love You” to go to the Kinks’ lead singer and songwriter Ray Davies, on account of the likenesses between its riff and that of the Kinks’ 1964 classic “All Day and All of the Night” – although the Doors’ guitarist Robby Krieger denied that the structure of their band’s song had been stolen from Davies.

Back in January, when Ronson and Mars’ “Uptown Funk” was dominating the airwaves, social media was awash with comments on how the song sounded rather like, not only “Oops Upside Your Head”, but also Was Not Was’s 1987 hit “Walk the Dinosaur” and even the theme music to the 1980s British kids’ TV programme The Really Wild Show. In one radio interview, Mark Ronson himself was played an excerpt of the Really Wild Show music, and then acknowledged the similarities, saying ‘The Really Wild Show and Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars are all equally influenced by Quincy Jones. I think that’s what that says to me.

Whether more copyright or plagarism lawsuits are in the offing, only time will tell. In recent years a number of websites dedicated to similarities between different songs have sprung up, with critics comparing, for example, Passenger’s 2013 hit “Let Her Go” with the Connells’ 1995 song “’74-’75”. Then again, pointing to the ways in which different songs sound alike has been a dinner-table conversation topic for many years. Musical similarities need not necessarily lead to bitter and expensive lawsuits. George Harrison, for example, never sued The Jam over how similar the structure of their 1980 chart-topper “Start” sounds to that of his 1966 song “Taxman”. Likewise, Harrison’s Beatles bandmates John and Paul were never contacted by Humphrey Lyttelton’s publishers over the similarities between the piano playing of the jazz trumpeter’s 1956 recording “Bad Penny Blues” and that of the fab four’s 1968 smash “Lady Madonna”.

Perhaps the only safe way forward for songwriters who want to use former other pieces of music may be to go further back in time, so to speak, and mine the rich seams of classic works. Producer and talent-show judge Pete Waterman remarked in a 2002 interview that he had used a piece of music by Mozart when writing the song “Last Thing on My Mind” for Bananarama (later a hit for Steps). Similarly, the Pet Shop Boys, the hip-hop star Coolio, and Merseyside new-wave band The Farm used the same classic piece as the basis for their respective hits “Go West”, “C U When U Get There”, and “All Together Now” – Pachelbel’s legendary Canon in D Major, which Waterman has called ‘almost the godfather of pop music because we’ve all used it in our own ways for the past 30 years.

But the rulings and disputes over “Got to Give It Up” and other allegedly plagiarized songs should give pause for thought, as there will surely come a time, after a few more of these cases, when would-be songwriters feel the temptation to shrug and think ‘Well, what’s the point, then? Does this mean all the music that could be written has already been written?’ In a documentary for BBC Radio 4 in 2011, the frontman for Elbow, Guy Garvey, offered his own thoughts on musical originality:

There’s not one of us who hasn’t borrowed or stolen from someone else, whether deliberately or unintentionally. Musicians don’t operate in a vacuum: they assimilate what’s around them, and create original music with it. Even the finest tunesmiths take inspiration, draw on, and re-adapt existing popular music, and not always vaguely or subconsciously…

There are only so many melodies or chord progressions, only so many ways of saying ‘I love you’, so it’s not surprising that so many musicians have found themselves embroiled in plagiarism disputes.