When does homage become theft? And when does inspiration tip into plagiarism? Can a creative endeavour ever be called completely original? These were the questions facing a U.S. court, which last week found in favour of the family of the late soul singer, Marvin Gaye - and against pop stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. Gaye’s people had brought a legal suit claiming Thicke and Williams had substantially copied Marvin’s ‘Got To Give It Up’ for their hit ‘Blurred Lines’. The verdict means significant damages will soon be swelling Gaye's estate. But does it signal anything more alarming for the wider creative industry?
"Noel Gallagher must have been sweating."
When the result of the Blurred Lines case landed, several wags took to Twitter to point out that Noel Gallagher must have been sweating, lest a call came in from The Beatles’ advocates. True, Noel's work often sounds very similar to that of McCartney, Harrison, Lennon and Starr. It’s a fair observation. However, we shouldn’t forget Lennon and McCartney were themselves, enormously influenced by The Everly Brothers, Elvis and the R&B singles wafting into the Liverpool docks from America, in the late fifties and early sixties. Their skill lay in translating that material into something uniquely their own. The result was so utterly groundbreaking, we can’t seriously blame Gallagher for taking their influence on board decades later. And besides, you can’t copyright a creative feeling. Or can you?
It has been decided that Thicke and Williams are plagiarists and must compensate the Gaye family accordingly, simply because they favoured the atmosphere of another record. To evaluate the implications of this ruling, it's important to set aside any distaste for the sentiments of ‘Blurred Lines’. Personally, I'm very uncomfortable with the song’s suggestion that women are prone to refusing sexual advances, when they actually desire them. At best, it's infantile - and worst, it's dangerous. But it’s the court case and its outcome which concern us here, and the implications for the creative process.
"The creative industry's output will rapidly grind to a halt."
The fact is, whether we examine advertising, design, copywriting or music, everything we’ve ever heard or seen, was influenced by something else. Worryingly, what the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling seems be doing is forbidding the use of that influence or inspiration. Which is ludicrous, restrictive and unrealistic. It also steps heavily on the notions of parody, satire, tribute and spoof. If it now unacceptable to produce material which in any way resembles anything else, the creative industry's output will rapidly grind to a halt. Of course, new ideas are the lifeblood of the business, but to demand unassailable originality is to demand the impossible. Think of all those advertisements which use film noire, horror movies, hip-hop or game shows as their theme; this verdict potentially opens the door to a rash of claims from anyone spotting the slightest similarity.
Creativity isn’t, and cannot be, segmented. No logo, poster, article or film is completely self-contained; rather it is part of a dovetail effect, whereby one successful project gives rise to another. To legislate against that, is to legislate against creativity itself.
Magnus Shaw is a copywriter and blogger