Before last week, the biggest successful music plagiarism suit in this country was over a song -- or two songs, depending on your point of view -- called "Love Is a Wonderful Thing." Michael Bolton had to pay $5.4 million for writing a song with that title that (a jury decided) was a rip-off of an Isley Brothers song with that exact same title.
It wasn't just the title; big chunks of the lyrics of the two songs were identical. It was pretty obvious. You kind of have to wonder how Bolton through he could get away with it, and why his lawyers put up a fight.
But that $5.4 million now seems like small potatoes. Marvin Gaye's estate just got more than $7 million from Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. A jury decided they copped their mega-hit "Blurred Lines" from Gaye's classic "Got to Give it Up."
There are no stolen lyrics, no similar melody lines. The two songs just sort of have the same groove. Apparently, starting now, if my lawyer can find 12 people who say that your song reminds them of my song, it can cost you millions.
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There are other songs that sound closer to "Got to Give It Up" than "Blurred Lines" does, at least to me. Earth Wind & Fire's "Let's Groove" always makes me think of the Gaye song. Even "Kiss" by Prince is pretty similar.
Plagiarism in pop music has always been around. Sometime it's not nefarious. There's a limited musical palette in pop, and there are a whole lot of pop songs, so overlap is going to happen.
One of the most famous plagiarism cases was the one involving George Harrison, who had to pay a lot of money for subconsciously stealing "My Sweet Lord" from the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." The judge said Harrison was guilty of "subconscious" plagiarism. Everybody accepts that, just by chance, Harrison wrote the same melody. It's a statistical inevitability that will happen on occasion.
John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival got sued for plagiarizing himself after someone bought the rights to the CCR cata
log. Fogerty kept writing his own solo stuff, which sounded a lot like what he wrote for his former band. Fogerty eventually won that one.
Lots of plagiarism goes unpunished. Eric Clapton has overtly stated that Cream's "Tales of Brave Ulysses" consisted of a parody of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" set to the chord progression from The Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City." No one ever thought it was a big deal.
The chord progressions from the Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm" have been used so many times that musicians know them simply as "rhythm changes." They've appeared in everything from Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail" to the theme song from "The Flintstones." You have to believe that if Gaye instead of Gershwin had written that progression, a lot of people would have been sued big-time.
Thicke and his people probably made a tactical mistake when they filed a "preemptive" suit against Gaye's estate to try to block a plagiarism suit. It made them seem like petulant brats, musical upstarts who thought they were bigger than one of the legendary figures in music. Even some people who disagree with the verdict are glad that Thicke got badly spanked.
Probably, instead, Thicke et al should have reached out to Gaye's people and said, "Look, we're gonna make a ton of money off this song and we were obviously influenced by Marvin's song, so why don't we call him a co-writer?"
As it is, there's this ridiculously huge lawsuit that goes way beyond rewarding Gaye's estate for creating the song's groove.
I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me this could set a really nasty precedent.
Maybe it comes down to the definition of a song. Most people, at least before now, would have said a song is music and lyrics. If you imitate someone's beat, you should pay them something for it, but it doesn't make you a plagiarist.
Now it does. You might write a catchy pop song, with all-new lyrics and melodies, but if anything about your song is anything like another song, you're in trouble.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.