The Blurred Lines Controversy: What Do Songwriters Have to Fear?

Copying a performance style is not usually enough to win an infringement case.

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Robin Thicke - Blurred LinesThis summer’s big hit, “Blurred Lines,” is in the news these days, as you likely know, because the writer’s have launched a preemptive strike against the copyright holders of “Got to Give it Up” (Marvin Gaye) and “Sexy Ways” (George Clinton). Since it’s clear that “Blurred Lines” only “sounds like” or “feels like” the other two songs in question, the lawsuit is an attempt to clarify that the copyright holders of Gaye’s and Clinton’s songs can’t claim protection for a style of music.

It’s hard to know what the outcome of the lawsuit will be. There are no rules about how much of a song can be copied into another before it becomes infringement. Every case will need to be judged on its own  merits.

I suspect that any lawsuit from Gaye’s or Clinton’s lawyers would have failed to prove infringement, and so the writers of “Blurred Lines” probably didn’t have anything to worry about. The lawsuits (on both sides) may have been a clever calculation.

Nonetheless, it can make a songwriter a bit nervous. We always copy from songs we’ve heard in the past, whether we like to admit it or not. Nothing is composed in a vacuum. How long will it be before someone accuses you of unintentionally copying another well-known song?

If you fear that the song you’re working on sounds uncomfortably familiar, here are five tips to help you find the song you’ve been subconsciously copying:

  1. Perform your music for friends & family. Tell them that you fear you might have unintentionally copied something you’ve heard. That’s usually a safe way to start.
  2. Give your music a close listen, and try to pinpoint exactly where you feel the similarity lies. Don’t focus so much on what you think is similar; think more about where you feel the similarity happens.
  3. Sing the song in a much higher or lower key. Try moving it by a significant interval, such as a 4th or 5th higher or lower. You’ll find that moving the melody line around may reveal the song that you think it’s copying.
  4. For the same reason as the previous suggestions, try playing and singing your song in a new tempo or a new time signature.
  5. Connect with someone in the music industry, someone that will have a considerable experience with music, and play your song for them. Ask them if it reminds them of anything they know.

If you find that your song is simply copying a performing style, tempo, key or chords from a well-known song, you’ve probably got nothing to worry about.

Your biggest worry will be copying of melodic fragments or lines of lyrics, both of which should be easily fixable if you find you’ve done it.

The “Blurred Lines” controversy serves to remind us that one of the most effective ways of avoiding the unintentional plagiarizing of music is to listen to lots of different music from many different styles and genres.

The more you listen, the greater the bank of ideas you have to draw from, and you increase the likelihood that you’ll always write something fresh and unique.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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3 Comments

  1. Peter Wood -Jenkins

     /  August 20, 2013

    The Gaye family, are contesting something that’s never been done before.
    Could you imagine Tom Parker Elvis’s late manager suing everyone who copied
    Elvis’s style or even The Beatles.

    The melody used in Blurred Lines is nothing like anything done by the late Marvin Gaye.
    and Titles, like Underpinning Chords , and Musical Styles can not be copyrighted , and if they could the world of pop music would cease to exist.

    I can only assume the Gaye Family’s members are tone deaf or just plain stupid.

    Reply
    • Or possibly smart. Imagine all the people Googling “Got to Give It Up” and going on to YouTube to listen. I suspect that they’ve made more sales on that tune in the past two weeks than they have in the past two decades.

      -Gary

      Reply
  2. OH! I am so happy that someone is discussing this! I do not like “Blurred Lines” for a couple of reasons (the casual use of the “B—- Word” as a term of endearment). One of them is the instrumental similarity to “Got to Give it up”.
    I think I will download it as a small show of support.

    Reply

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