Copyright Law

Lawyers say copyright laws must change, now that White artists are also being affected [Op-Ed]

In recent months a growing number of popular artists have been justly and unjustly sued for copyright infringement which has provoked a call for change. However, in previous decades when many artists of color were being accused, no one advocated for any sort of amending.

Op-ed by Mike Masnick of Tech Dirt.

You may have noticed a whole bunch of stories about copyright lawsuits lately against famous musicians for having songs that sound just kind of like some other songs. I’d been meaning to write up something talking about all of these stories about how Ed Sheeran is supposedly a “magpie” who “borrows” songs, or about how Dua Lipa was sued not once, but twice, claiming her song “Levitating” infringes on the copyrights of others. Or maybe about how it took Katy Perry eight years to finally have an appeals court note that she didn’t actually infringe on someone else’s copyright.

But then I came across this moderately infuriating Guardian article talking about a few of these cases, and saying that “music industry figures” are claiming that all of these lawsuits show how copyright needs to change because “making music is so different to how it was 50 years ago.”

Hayleigh Bosher, associate dean of intellectual property law at Brunel University, who researches the music industry, said “the law needs to move with the times” as “making music is so different to how it was 50 years ago”.

She added: If Sheeran loses, I imagine we will see even more cases. I don’t think copyright is doing its job properly if songwriters are afraid, that’s stifling creativity.”

And, yes, obviously, copyright law needs to change. These lawsuits are crazy, and we’ve been saying that for a long while now.

But there seems to be something worth noting when the industry is only starting to come around on this because of a bunch of lawsuits targeting famous white songwriters. Because for all the talk about how “music is so different” today, we went through another period of time when a whole bunch of brilliant musicians were sued over copyright infringement… and the response from the industry was a lot more muted.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s there was a flood of sampling lawsuits — almost all of which were targeting hip hop artists. And then you had crazy legal rulings like Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films in which a court announced “get a license or do not sample” and (ridiculously) “we do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.” 

But did we see the music industry screaming about how we needed to fix copyright laws back then? Nope. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching Kembrew McLeod’s one hour documentary Copyright Criminals (which, apparently, is now available on YouTube), which does such a great job of showing how copyright basically destroyed a whole genre of hip hop music, but the industry didn’t much care, because hip hop involved mostly artists of color, rather than white pop music.

One great line in that documentary is that after someone says that hip hop artists sampling other musicians is “lazy,” someone notes that it’s not that different than saying a photographer is lazier than a painter because they just snap a picture of what’s already there, rather than painting it from scratch.

The simple fact is that copyright law has gotten in the way of creativity for ages. Creativity has alwaysbeen based on building on the works of people who came before you. Sometimes it’s homage. Sometimes it’s appropriation. Sometimes it’s just because there are only so many ways certain notes can be played together.

But if people are getting sued over creating new music, and musicians are now afraid of getting sued for making music, then it’s a huge problem. And it was a huge problem in the 80s, 90s, 2000s and today. Perhaps it’s good that more people are realizing how broken the system is and how it’s stifling creativity, but it does seem at least slightly infuriating that it’s only once it’s famous white pop singers are facing the same thing that black hip hop artists faced in the 80s and 90s that its treated as a “real” problem.

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