Is creativity being hindered by intellectual property barriers? A lesson from the "Blurred Lines" trial
The "Blurred Lines" trial did not end well for writers Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke (and TI). After they were ordered to pay over $7M dollars to the Marvin Gaye estate, the question has been raised over whether we will begin to see more cases like this. I'd like to discuss the question around whether intellectual property laws create a barrier for creativity, especially with how music is created in 2015.
Jon Caramanica made a great point in The New York Times where he discussed that the Jury in the "Blurred Lines" trial was ordered to base their decision off of the sheet music which is outdated for how music is created today.
Owing to the specifics of copyright law, the jury was instructed to base its decision on the sheet music, a fact that reflects how inadequate copyright law is when it comes to contemporary songwriting and production practices. In 2015, the arrangement of notes on a sheet of paper is among the least integral parts of pop music creation. We’re decades beyond the time when a songwriter penned a tune on paper, then gave it to musicians to perform...
Besides, in an age in which popular music is incredibly diverse, with more sonic references, instruments and digital trickery available than ever, using sheet music as a measure of a song’s originality is a weak tactic, and possibly an irresponsible one.
When looking only at the sheet music, it's very difficult to decipher whether a song is actually a blatant rip off or a similar sounding piece of work that was created with original intent. How can you make a decision without basing it on how the song actually sounds?
Take a look at this video of the Axis of Awesome playing "Every Pop Song" with the same 4 chords. Should all of these artist's sue each other?
Do these types of intellectual property laws actually stall real progress in creativity?
Don't all songs "borrow" elements of other work? All creators have other creations that have influenced them in some way. Creating something new is based on the ability to arrange borrowed elements in a new way. This is very different than an obvious, blatant rip off of a song.
Ironically, I was trying to find an amazing clip from the movie "Flash of Genius" that illustrates this point beautifully, but the clip can not be found anywhere because it was taken down by NBC Universal due to copyright issues. I'll provide pieces from the transcript:
"I have here a book. It's by Charles Dickens. It's called A Tale of Two Cities. Have you ever read this book? I'd like to read you the first, few words, if I may.
'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.'
Let's start with the first word, "It." Did Charles Dickens
create that word? What about "was"? "The"? "Best"? "Times"? I got a dictionary here. I haven't checked, but I would guess that every word that's in this book can be found in this dictionary. There's not, probably a single new word in this book.
All Charles Dickens did was arrange them into a new pattern, isn't that right? But Dickens did create something new, didn't he? By using words. The only tools that were available to him. Just as almost all inventors in history have had to use the tools that were available to them. Telephones, space satellites
all of these were made from parts that already existed."
By having a law that causes someone to fear being sued for copyright infringement, it makes it more difficult for them create great work. They must always look over their shoulder to make sure that someone won't come after them for copying their work. This blocks their ability to truly create freely. If someone uses elements of another song, but ultimately ends up with something different, is that not a new song?
Typically, these kinds of cases are settled outside of the courtroom before trial. As in the Sam Smith "Stay With Me" and Top Petty "Don't Back Down" disagreement, the two decided to settle outside of court and cut Tom Petty into the royalties. But even though the two came to an agreement, these cases set a precedent for any artist to go on the hunt to claim that their songs are being "ripped off" for any similarity instead of applauding someone for their inspired creativity or even producing an original piece of work with unintentional similarities.
An environment that promotes free expression of art, collaboration, and inspiration will ultimately encourage a higher level of progress for art in our culture. An environment that promotes too much protection of copyrighted, closing off the ability for free expression, will hinder artists' ability to truly reach bring the institution of art to its full potential.
It's a very fine line between allowing a creator to have the freedom to generate art while still protecting the intellectual property of others. How can we solve this issue? Let us know in the comments below