Inspiration or Imitation: The Intellectual Property Conundrum

eyeglasses-1209707_960_720Ed Sheeran is facing a lawsuit alleging that his smash hit “We Found Love” is a rip off Marvin Gaye’s iconic single, “Let’s Get It On”. This isn’t first time a popular artist has been accused of borrowing from the past. Fans noted the striking similarities between “Some Nights” by the indie rock band, Fun, and Simon and Garfunkel’s, “Cecilia”. Fun admitted to having been inspired by Simon’s Graceland album, but rejected the notion of having copied anything.


In another case involving Marvin Gaye’s records, singer Robin Thicke and producer Pharrell Williams found themselves under scrutiny for the Grammy nominated record “Blurred Lines”, which a jury decided was overwhelmingly similar to “Got to Give It Up”, and forced the superstars to pay more than $7 million to the Gaye family for copyright infringement.


The decision was criticized heavily by publications such as Slate Magazine, who felt the jury lacked a proper understanding of the law regarding music copyright. According to writers for the magazine, the law is limited to compositions. Anything added after the song is composed, is considered extraneous. This includes the percussion and other sounds which are not specific to the song’s melody and/or lyrics.


Because of the historic decision, however, people in the industry have begun taking greater measures to guard their royalties and reputations. When they haven’t, they’ve made things right as quickly as possible. Take for example, Sam Smith who added Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to the credits of his popular debut single, “Stay With Me”, after publishers noted the melodic similarities to Petty and Lynne’s “Won’t Back Down”.


The frequent occurrence of these incidents has certainly raised concerns for musicians as much as it has empowered plaintiffs. On one side, the argument is, after more than a century of recorded music, nothing is wholly original; inspiration and art are one in the same. On the other, the court of public opinion accuses people of intentionally excluding fellow artists from credit for personal gain.


I don’t imagine that any of the artists mentioned has any malicious intent. Similar bass lines and/or chord progressions aren’t necessarily plagiarism. Yet, when being inspired, make it known and cover your bases to be sure your interpretation doesn’t warrant accusations of infringement.