Two Smash Songs Inspired By Past Hits Get Very Different Treatment From Copyright Holders

Techdirt-logoBy Mike Masnick of Techdirt.

There were two very interesting stories last week concerning hit songs allegedly "inspired" by hits from previous decades, but the stories are quite different. First up, was the news that Robin Thicke (along with Pharrell Williams and Clifford Harris Jr.), whose song Blurred Lines appears to be the undisputed hit of the summer this year (with some controversy over the content), had filed for a declaratory judgment against Marvin Gaye's family and Bridgeport Music, after those two claimed that Blurred Lines infringes on Marvin Gaye's Got to Give it Up and Funkadelic's Sexy Ways.

You can listen to them below:

Frankly, I can hear the similarities between Blurred Lines and Got to Give it Up (that bass line is pretty damn similar), but, as the filing for declaratory judgment notes, having a similar "feel" or "sound" is not copyright infringement (hello idea/expression dichotomy). As they note, Gaye's heirs appear to be "claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work."

As for the Funkadelic song, I don't hear it at all. But… this is Bridgeport, we're dealing with here, the company that George Clinton continues to claim forged documents to gain control over his copyrights, and which is without a doubt the single most aggressive of the sample trolls out there, going after anyone who uses even the tiniest snippet of some of the copyrights it controls (even if they were obtained by dubious means). Bridgeport has gone after musicians even when they distorted tiny snippets of music so much that the average listener couldn't recognize the original. So perhaps it claims something similar is happening here.

Either way, the threats came in and Thicke, Williams and Harris decided to strike first with a declaratory judgment. Good for them, but shame on Bridgeport and Marvin Gaye's heirs. Especially with Marvin Gaye, while the songs may have a similar feel, they're different songs. They're both enjoyable in their own ways, and the success of one doesn't take away from the other. In fact, it seems likely that the massive success of Blurred Lines is driving more interest in Got to Give it Up and other Marvin Gaye songs.

However, compare that dispute to another, very similar, dispute. It appears that there was some controversy over the fact that the band One Direction's latest song, entitled Best Song Ever (I'd put a joke here, but it sorta speaks for itself), is conspicuously similar to The Who's classic song Baba O'Riley. Again, to the comparisons:

Again, here, the similarities are pretty obvious and unmistakable. However, unlike Bridgeport or Marvin Gaye, The Who's Pete Townshend has said that he loves the fact that others are inspired by his works and has no issue with it at all. He was specifically asked if he was going to take legal action against One Direction, and pointed out that so much great music involves copying and building on the works of others:

No! I like the single. I like One Direction. The chords I used and the chords they used are the same three chords we've all been using in basic pop music since Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry made it clear that fancy chords don't mean great music – not always. I'm still writing songs that sound like Baba O'Riley – or I'm trying to!. It's a part of my life and a part of pop's lineage. One Direction are in my business, with a million fans, and I'm happy to think they may have been influenced a little bit by The Who. I'm just relieved they're all not wearing boiler suits and Doc Martens, or Union Jack jackets. The funniest thing is that in Canada this year I met with Randy Bachman once the leader of GUESS WHO who told me that he not only copied Baba O Riley for their hit You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, but he even called his band after us. Why would I not be happy about this kind of tribute?

What a fantastic response in almost every way. And what a stark contrast to the heirs of Marvin Gaye and so many other copyright holders who seem to freak out when others are inspired by their works. Now, if we could just get Townshend to stop blaming Apple for the problems of the recording industry.


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  1. Interesting case, and interesting to see the different types of reaction from the original song’s authors/performers/copyright owners.

  2. Honestly, I don’t think you have the authority to comment on this. If you have no idea why the P Funk song sounds similar it means you should have called someone and asked.
    Also, is there a bit of race stuff underpinned here?

  3. the difference is that Townshend is still alive, and touring, still making money
    whereas I imagine the Gaye estate relies on the rights of his works as a source of income
    fast forward 50 years and the estate of Townshend will be suing anyone that even comes close to any of his works

  4. Ah, no he wasn’t/isn’t. Do a bit of research and you’ll find Pete Townshend is a tireless campaigner against child abuse.

  5. Pete Townshend comes off as a class act here. Good on him for showing some maturity and sensibility on the copyright issue. One Direction and their management would be wise to do the same and acknowledge that they’ve “borrowed” from Pete Townshend and The Who, and maybe thank them for the inspiration too.
    A small correction to Pete’s comments is needed: Randy Bachman definitely shared the leadership of the Guess Who with Burton Cummings, the lead singer. The hit song “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” is not a Guess Who song. It was released in 1974 by Randy Bachman’s new group, Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO), after he left the Guess Who in 1970.

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