It seems every day that I read about another federal law suit claiming that some musical “artist” of whom I have never heard, claims that another musical “artist” (of whom I may have heard) stole his/her/its music and infringed copyright. Is it just me, or are these claims becoming more frequent? What gives?
You’re right! The “Doc” has, in all his years, never seen so many copyright infringement law suits over music. The latest seems to be the suit against “Demi Lovato” by “Sleigh Bells” over their song “Infinity Guitars” and her song “Stars”. The complaint in the law suit sums it all up: “A comparison of the two songs reveals that, at the very least, the combination of the hand claps and bass drum, structured as 3 quarter beats and a rest, with the bass drum providing a counter-rhythm to the hand claps, is at least substantially similar in both works…” So there, you have it. No similar melody (or what the “Doc” always thought was the important part of the song – the part you can whistle).
Now, the “Doc” has friends who are musicologists (doesn’t everyone?), and they will tell you that every element of music (rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, instrumentation, etc.) contributes to the overall artistic impression of a composition or arrangement. And they are right! But until recently, our copyright laws gave much more weight to the commonly recognizable melodic elements, and much less to the overall style, often pushing style into the background, much like a common plot device in a play (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl) which is not protectable, in and of itself.
This style issue began to change (much like most of pop music, which seems to have less melody every day, but that may be just the Doc getting older and crankier), and the case between the heirs of Marvin Gaye and Pharrell Williams/Robin Thicke over the song “Blurred Lines” truly blurred the lines about what may be protected by copyright in music. There, the judge decided that because a later song had a style that reminded people of an earlier one, but did not share any common musical elements (melody, rhythm, harmony), it could still be an infringement under the law. #OpenFloodgates, as the kids would say.
So… is “Stars” a copy of “Infinity Guitars”? You, the jury, now have the option to decide. Good luck.
Think your little ditty is being ripped off? Have another intellectual property question? Contact the lawyers at LW&H. They’ll help you protect what’s yours!
Until next month… Keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the “Stars” (or the “Infinity Guitars”)…
–Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.