Years Of Brainwashing The Public Into Thinking Everything Creative Must Be ‘Owned’ Has Led To This New Mess

We have already written about the ridiculousness of a jury awarding over $7 million from Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to the children of Marvin Gaye, because their song “Blurred Lines” sounds kinda (but not really) a bit like Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” The ruling is problematic on multiple levels, as many commentators are just now realizing. Copyright lawyer Fred von Lohmann pointed out that, technically, everyone who bought copies of “Blurred Lines” is now infringing as well — and that could apply to many others too, including Weird Al who famously did a hilarious parody of “Blurred Lines” called “Word Crimes.” Weird Al, somewhat famously, makes sure to get permission to do his parodies, even though he could probably just use fair use. But… if “Blurred Lines” is infringing, there’s no fair use argument to be made and Weird Al doesn’t have permission from the Gaye Estate.

In other words: what a massive mess.

But that’s just getting down into the technicalities, which may not matter if the Gaye Estate doesn’t push the issue — but could certainly come up in future cases. Plenty of other folks have pointed out that no matter what you think of any of the parties involved, this ruling is bad for music, bad for musicians and bad for songwriters. And, yes, musicians are concerned:

Los Angeles composer and producer Gregory Butler said Tuesday afternoon that his friends and colleagues in the industry were stunned by the verdict.

“You’ve made it illegal to reference previous material,” said Butler, also a managing director at music startup WholeWorldBand. “I’m never going to come up with something so radically different that it doesn’t contain references to something else.”

Joe Escalante, an early member of the Vandals punk rock band and an entertainment law attorney, said he was concerned that the jury’s decision had been driven by emotion rather than what’s protected under copyright law.

“This may put a smile on the Gaye family’s face, but it’s a dark day for creativity, and in the end, this will be a net loss for music fans,” he said. “Good news for lawyers and the bitter everywhere.”

And that just hints at how it’s bad for culture as well.

“Culture” itself is based on the very idea of common ideas that are shared. Common ideas are the core of every cultural movement. You share a “feel” because you want to identify yourself with a particular culture. Music in a genre has similarities for a reason. People identify with it for a reason. Locking up “the feel” of music decimates that nature of culture. We lose the “shared” part of “shared culture.” And you would think that those who are often at the forefront of pushing the shared culture on everyone — the major record labels — would recognize this. And yet, they’re partly responsible for this mess. Because they’re the ones who have been pushing this myth for years that every single scrap of cultural output must be “owned” and doing anything they don’t like to build off of it must be “infringing.”

To be fair, this case is going to be appealed, and others have made perfectly reasonable arguments for how it’s somewhat unique, in part based on the fact that Robin Thicke was an incredibly unsympathetic player in all of this — admitting to lying and being inconsistent with his statements — a fact that the Gaye’s lawyer gleefully exploited. There is also the simple fact that this is a jury ruling and has no direct precedent-setting ability. That comes from appeals court rulings (and Supreme Court rulings), so we need to wait for any real precedent from this case. Of course, there have been some similar cases in the past, and the results often show the same sort of confusion about copyright, which is troubling.

And, it all seems to come back to this weird concept that people believe in this myth of “ownership” over cultural touchstones. The very things that should be shared: the “feel” of music, the “groove,” the cultural sharing point that everyone builds off of. In discussing this case on Twitter, and talking about the horrible implications of the ruling, I noticed more than a few people on Twitter brush off all the concerns with a simple kind of “dude, they copied Gaye, so good ruling.” Amazingly, one songwriter insisted that the ruling was correct and when I looked at his personal webpage it was all about how his music was “inspired” by other famous bands. Watch out, because now those bands could come after you.

This case has strayed far from actual copyright law into a made up fantasy land of copyright law — one where people are punishing Thicke because they don’t like him or the way he acted. They’re also punishing both Williams and Thicke because of this amorphous idea that they must have “ripped off” Gaye because the songs feel the same. Even the press is confusing this. You see idiotic headlines, like this one from Vulture, which claims the lawsuit was about plagiarism. Except plagiarism isn’t illegal. Copyright infringement is — and plagiarism and copyright infringement are not the same thing. And even if this were “plagiarism” the question is plagiarism of what? Musicologists who have compared the two songs note that they’re actually really, really different. The only thing that’s the same is “the feel” of the songs. And “feel” is not something covered copyright.

But people know that plagiarism is “wrong” so they look at what Williams and Thicke did here — copying the “feel” — and they insist that it must be “wrong,” even if copyright is only supposed to cover the specific expression written down in the sheet music for Gaye’s song. The actual notes in “Blurred Lines” don’t match that sheet music at all. But rather than sticking to the letter of the law, or even bothering to understand that copyright only covers specific expression, we keep getting this message pushed on us, by the RIAA, the MPAA and others, that every bit of culture must be “owned.” And you can’t do anything without a license. And people have heard that refrain so many times, that it infects their psyche.

As Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman note in their own writeup about the ruling, the incredible thing is just how wrong it is on copyright. Yes, there may be some elements that were copied, but those are not the elements covered by copyright:

In short, what the “Blurred Lines” team copied is either not original or not relevant.

So when they see a situation here, where a less-than-likable character has made a song that was inspired by another, they assume that something must be wrong with it, and even if the law doesn’t actually apply, dammit, they’re just going to say that it does. It’s the inevitable result of constantly pushing for a society where every bit of culture is owned under lock and key and the idea of sharing, remixing, reusing is deemed subversive, rather than the way that culture happens.

Whether or not this case really does have a long-term or wider-term impact may not really matter that much. But the results here are indicative of something bigger: and it’s a dangerous view that undermines the very nature of culture itself.

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