A cartoon in the current issue of ‘Private Eye’ shows a musician poised to unveil a new number for an appreciative audience. ‘I wrote this next song,’ he says, ‘in the hope that someone will rip it off so I can sue them.’ Satirical, yes, but to the point where the business of music is currently concerned. In the aftermath of the era when pop promised riches that speedily elevated its practitioners several social places via a string of hit singles, the descendants of deceased musicians who evidently didn’t have a problem with their little-known numbers bearing a passing resemblance to very well-known ones are launching suits left right and centre in order to grab a little cash from the only songs that still make a million, old ones.
Just a few months ago, a case of copyright infringement against Led Zeppelin claimed their magnum opus ‘Stairway to Heaven’ ripped off a track by an obscure 60s/70s band called Spirit. The judge ruled the similarities between ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and ‘Taurus’ were not similar enough to warrant infringement and Led Zep were not forced to surrender any of the astronomical royalties the song has accumulated for them over the last 45 years. This case followed the more famous one involving ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give it Up’; the Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams hit of 2013 – remembered chiefly for its rather crass promo video – was compared unfavourably to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 US chart-topper in a case last year. This time round, the plagiarism charge held up and Gaye’s children were awarded in the region of $7.4 million as a consequence.
An insipid peddler of trite, vapid dirges he may well be, but is Ed Sheeran a plagiarist? The heirs of Ed Townsend, the late co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s erotic ode to Percy Filth, ‘Let’s Get it On’, reckon so. They’ve instigated a lawsuit against the guitar-playing ginger crooner that claims his track ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is a little too close to Gaye’s 1973 Billboard No.1 to not be considered a rip-off. I took a deep breath and gave the Sheeran track a listen to see if I could discern comparisons with Marvin’s sensual masterpiece. Yes, Gaye’s song was clearly an influence on Sheeran’s, but you could say that about hundreds of bloody songs recorded in the last half-century. After all, what is the 12-bar Blues but the same song over and over again?
The first time a plagiarism lawsuit caught the public’s attention was in the mid-70s, when George Harrison’s worldwide 1971 solo chart-topper ‘My Sweet Lord’ was successfully sued by the composers of the 1963 Chiffons hit, ‘He’s So Fine’. The judge found in favour of the latter and Harrison admitted he was probably subconsciously influenced by ‘He’s So Fine’ when composing the song that acted as the launch-pad for his post-Beatles career. There are identical chord changes in some places, though Harrison’s claim that he was more inspired by ‘Oh, Happy Day’, a 1969 hit for The Edwin Hawkins Singers, also rings true when it comes to the spiritual mood of ‘My Sweet Lord’.
Funnily enough, Harrison himself failed to sue Paul Weller, despite the obvious similarities between his own 1966 Beatles song, ‘Taxman’, and The Jam’s 1980 UK chart-topper, ‘Start’. Perhaps he was shrewd enough to recognise an affectionate homage to his track of fourteen years previously; but those were still the days when so much money was in pop music that people didn’t necessarily have to sue to survive.
The collapse of the old-school music industry and the multi-million dollar record sales that enabled performers and writers to join the jet-set on the back of them has hit the songwriter hard. Up-and-coming artists forced to relentlessly tour in order to make a living certainly have a case should they feel someone else has ripped off their tune and is making more money from their version of it than their original managed; but when it comes to the children of dead writers attempting to make a mint from something they themselves had no hand in, I’m not so sure. Andrew Lloyd-Webber owes his most successful songs to the eighteenth and nineteenth century composers he…er…’borrowed’ melodies from, so where are their descendants, desperately seeking some golden eggs that they had nothing to do with the laying of? The way things are going, don’t rule it out.
There are only so many chords and there are only so many ways of putting those chords in a different running order; equally, each new artist that appears carries his or her influences in every song they write, which is an unavoidable state of affairs. And with genuine originality being at such a premium today, it’s inevitable we’re going to get even more soundalikes due to the fact that twenty-first century musicians have almost a hundred years of standards behind them that they have to compete with and outdo. It’s a tall order, though the prospect of each new hit being accused of ripping off another from thirty or forty years ago by people who’ve never so much as written a shopping-list is utterly farcical. And it’s setting a dangerous precedent.
© The Editor