Will the “Blurred Lines” Decision “Stifle Creativity”?

Will the “Blurred Lines” Decision “Stifle Creativity”?There have already been many fine commentaries written about the “Blurred Lines” verdict, but it is such an important issue that I feel obligated to lend my voice to the growing chorus of critics denouncing this decision.

Responding to the jury’s decision, Pharrell was quoted (in part) as saying: “Everything that’s around you in a room was inspired by something or someone. If you kill that, there’s no creativity.” (via The Financial Times, as reported by Variety)

I wholeheartedly agree that this decision- should it stand on appeal- will severely deter future composers and songwriters from following their creative muse and exercising the freedom to pursue inspiration wherever they may find it.

Over the course of history virtually every musician, composer and songwriter was inspired to some extent byhis or her predecessors. From Beethoven to The Beatles to John Williams to Lady Gaga, all artists are influenced and shaped by the great legacy of preexisting music around them (with the possible exception of Debussy!). Artists do not live or work in a vacuum. The key is not to shun inspiration but rather to build on what came before and create something new and original.

While it is certainly true that today’s artists have instant access to virtually the entire repertoire of every work ever recorded, something that their predecessors could never have dreamt of, the basic tenets of copyright law still apply. Certain aspects of a song are copyrightable- such as the melody, lyrics, bass line and hook, while other aspects are not- such as groove, feel, mood, rhythm, chord progression and instrumentation. Clearly in the case of Blurred Lines, in my professional opinion, none of these copyrightable elements were breached in any way. Furthermore, the fact that music these days tends to be produced electronically in a studio with loops, software and gigabytes of onboard processing really does nothing to obscure the fact that ultimately a song boils down to the primary copyrightable elements of melody and lyrics.

All musical works, indeed all creative works, are born from a spark of inspiration. It is essential for musicians and composers to be able to find this spark anywhere and everywhere without having to constantly look over their shoulders and worry about being sued. To extinguish this spark, to replace it with fear, is to stifle creativity and deprive society of the next generation of great artists and new music. And yes, artists should be able to talk freely about their sources of inspiration without having to worry about their exuberant proclamations being played back as damning evidence in a court of law.

Finding inspiration is not the same thing as plagiarism. Of course we must respect and enforce copyright law and protect creators from the threat of blatant infringement. For example, if a new work in toto appropriates an existing theme, melody, lyric or hook, a case for infringement may well be warranted. However creating a song with a similar “feel” or “groove” or using similar instrumentation or chords is simply not grounds for infringement since such elements are not protectable. Musical works are not created “out of the blue”; they do not appear out of nothingness like the big bang. Virtually nothing in music can be truly said to be 100% new and original. Every new work is sparked by inspiration and builds on what came before. We need to be vigilant about giving creators the freedom to find inspiration anywhere and thereby allowing the arts to flourish for future generations.

– Ron Mendelsohn, March 31, 2015

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