There’s a lot to say about “Blurred Lines,” the inescapable (at the time) 2013 hit penned by Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I., and not much of it is positive. If memory serves, it was the subject of about one million thinkpieces concerned with the extremely-reasonable complaint that the lyrics are at least mildly degrading to women. It followed up winning the award of Billboard’s 2013 Song of the Summer by being banned by at least 20 overseas universities. It seemed most people liked it until they realized they hated it.
Initially, the least of the song’s problems was the resemblance to Marvin Gaye’s funky-fresh 1977 single “Got To Give It Up.” But in 2013, Gaye’s family noticed some similarity and sued Thicke and Williams, resulting in a payout of $5.3 million for the Gaye family. The defendants had claimed “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up” shared a similar feeling and nothing more, but the court didn’t buy it and Gaye ended up listed as a writer of the song. A few months ago, more fuel was added to this highly-publicized dumpster fire of a lawsuit, with artists speaking out against the precedent set by the ruling: Copyright infringement should not include a song being merely “reminiscent” to another.
So this whole ordeal isn’t really over, because people are still pissed off about it — and by people, I mean Rivers Cuomo, Jennifer Hudson, Hans Zimmer, and Tears For Fears, among others — while plenty of others are seeking to cash in on the new legal precedent. In hindsight, the “Blurred Lines” decision was a forerunner for many similar lawsuits, if only due to its popularity and A-list talent behind the song. 2016 was loaded with accusations of copyright infringement and the damage control that comes with it, so here’s a quick rundown of the most notable cases. Whether they’re indicative of a benevolent anti-plagiarism crusade or sue-happy industry-types is up to you.
Nearly everybody I know agrees that 2016 has been a terrible, terrible year. Clearly, nobody I know is a copyright lawyer.
Blind Melon Vs. Mandy Jiroux
In the fourth grade, Blind Melon’s “No Rain” had instant appeal; the lyrics reminded me of a cousin who lounged around his room for hours on end (probably due to depression, though I didn’t know that at the time). The Mandy Jiroux … homage? re-imagining? of the 1992 hit is instead titled “Insane,” flipping the original sentiment on its head and opting for an extroverted “Live, Laugh, Love” feel. While Blind Melon frontman Shannon Hoon (R.I.P.) sang of not doing much at all, Jiroux sings of living life to the fullest. Hoon wanted it to rain so he didn’t have to do anything; Jiroux wants to revel in whatever precipitation comes her way.
Despite this obvious change in tone, Jiroux’s version rips lyrics, the main chord progression, and the entire intro from the original Melon version in an effort to assemble what I can only describe as the fever dream of Hudson Mohawke being contractually obligated to make music for the Disney Channel. It’s a lot to take in. I don’t like it. Stereogum’s Gabriela Claymore didn’t like it. And Blind Melon hates it.
The abridged version of the legal proceedings is this: Blind Melon sued, claiming to be duped by Jiroux, who mentioned that the song was a cover, in a stricter sense of the word. Had the song been more of a proper cover and less of a “derivative,” it would have been the concern of the publisher. Unfortunately for Jiroux, “Insane” is different enough from “No Rain” to be vulnerable to a copyright infringement suit. Jiroux has since countersued, claiming she has texts and emails from Blind Melon permitting the song to exist in its current state. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not the song is allowed to exist in the eyes of law because it will always live in my head. Proceed with caution.
Cirque Du Soleil Vs. Justin Timberlake
“Justin Timberlake in legal battle with the circus” is not something I ever expected to type, read, or think any more than “Tom Waits in legal battle with the circus,” but here we are. The 2013 Timbaland-produced track “Don’t Hold The Wall” is an intriguing seven minutes (not unusual for The 20/20 Experience) with a spooky music box sample at the four minute mark. Said music box sounds an awful lot like the very beginning of “Steel Dream,” a Cirque Du Soleil cut from 1997. Was the sample used illegally? Yeah, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t integrated nicely into JT and Timbaland’s gargantuan pop record.
Spirit Vs. Led Zeppelin
Everybody loves a good David and Goliath story. Unfortunately, Spirit Vs. Led Zeppelin isn’t it. For the famed biblical narrative to apply here, David and Goliath would have to be considered equals, and then everyone would have to agree that Goliath is cooler and more talented than David, and then David would have to sue Goliath for copyright infringement, like, 40 years later. So it’s a bit of a stretch. You know what’s not a stretch? That maybe Jimmy Page heard the intro to Spirit’s “Taurus” at a show they played together and subconsciously included it in the most legendary rock song of all time.
This is what Michael Skidmore, the trustee to late Spirit guitarist Randy California’s estate, wanted the court to believe in the lawsuit filed in 2014. For context, California (birth name Randy Wolfe) wrote “Taurus” in 1967 and played it at nearly every show in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Couple that with the fact that Led Zeppelin incorporated another Spirit song into their live set after a support tour and the odds seem to be in Spirit’s favor. However, the eight-person jury let Led Zep off the hook this year, finding “no substantial similarity in the extrinsic elements” of the two songs, while admitting that Page definitely heard “Taurus” at some point. It looks like Led Zeppelin’s earnings won’t be going to California’s estate any time soon.
White Hinterland Vs. Justin Bieber, Skrillex, & Diplo
While it’s already been speculated that the lawsuit will be handled out of court, White Hinterland (born Casey Dienel) sued Justin Bieber over this year’s monster-hit “Sorry.” Dienel claims the immediately-recognizable vocal melody in “Sorry” is a sample of her own “Ring The Bell” from two years prior, a claim that Bieber and Skrillex have denied. For the record, Diplo thinks it’s possible due to the sheer amount of personnel involved with the song’s production. In defense of “Sorry” and those who worked on it, Skrillex showed how the melody was created in a video he posted on Twitter, which is worth watching if only for the name of the video.
— SKRILLEX (@Skrillex) May 27, 2016
Sleigh Bells Vs. Demi Lovato
Sleigh Bells’ Treats had some wonderful highlights: the stadium-ready “Tell ‘Em,” filth-pop “Riot Rhythm,” and punk slow-burn “Infinity Guitars” covered enough ground while still working towards that big, fun, grimy thing they had going on. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard “Kids.” Yet the album seems to have lost some of its cachet in the years since its release.
So, in a way, Demi Lovato possibly stealing bits from “Riot Rhythm” and “Infinity Guitars” will (hopefully) help Sleigh Bells find a broader audience and breathe new life into two stone-cold bangers. The bonus track “Stars” from last year’s Confident is standard Lovato fare on her end, but the production is harder-hitting thanks to what is probably the unlawful sampling of the main percussion in “Infinity Guitars” and a drum fill in “Riot Rhythm.”
.@ddlovato Demi Lovato flattered you guys sampled Infinity Guitars & Riot Rhythm for "Stars" but we were not contacted. Gotta clear those.
— SLEIGH BELLS (@sleighbells) November 2, 2015
Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller sued Lovato for the uncleared sample in August, and the case has not yet been settled. Meanwhile, the comments section under the “Infinity Guitars” music video is a warzone.
Martin Harrington & Thomas Leonard Vs. Ed Sheeran
Nu-folk poster-boy Ed Sheeran was sued earlier this year for $20 million by the people behind “Amazing,” the 2009 song made popular by X Factor winner Matt Cardle. Using notation, writers Harrington and Leonard are arguing that Sheeran’s “Photograph” undoubtedly rips off “Amazing.” Cardle doesn’t give a shit, though.
Please read news articles closely. This is not my lawsuit. I think @edsheeran is a genius & 100% deserves all his success 🙏🏽❤️ X
— Matt Cardle (@mattcardle) June 9, 2016
Sheeran has argued that Harrington and Leonard’s initial lawsuit is too long and rambling, which violates the rule that the complaint must be “short and plain.” As with Sleigh Bells Vs. Demi Lovato, watching the fan bases fight is at least mildly entertaining. Take a trip to the YouTube comments sections if the songs don’t interest you.
Jesse Braham Vs. Taylor Swift
I want to believe that Jesse Braham (aka Jesse Graham) is a mastermind. Thanks to its role in a lawsuit filed against Taylor Swift, the lyric video for “Haters Gone Hate” dwarfs the other songs from his 2013 album Sexy Ladies with a staggering 1.8 million views. Braham claimed Swift ripped him off with “Shake It Off” — both songs mention haters hating and players playing — but the judge wasn’t having it. There’s no way to summarize the verdict and still do it justice, so make sure to read it here. Braham’s video, which is not embeddable, is currently being disliked into oblivion.
Collage Vs. Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars
Upon hearing 2014’s super-fun “Uptown Funk!,” you probably wouldn’t be shocked to learn that Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars are fans of the 1980s Minneapolis sound. It’s funky, brassy, and maybe reminds you of Prince. Catchy as it is, it’s a bit too close to “Young Girls” according to Collage, the band that penned the similar-sounding song in 1983. Collage is suing due to “Young Girls” and “Uptown Funk!” sharing the following traits:
distinct funky specifically noted and timed consistent guitar riffs present throughout the compositions, virtually if not identical bass notes and sequence, rhythm, structure, crescendo of horns and synthesizers rendering the compositions almost indistinguishable if played over each other and strikingly similar if played in consecutively.
I can’t make up my mind about this case, but I feel that it’s worth pointing out that Bruno also has a song called “Young Girls” and it is most definitely not funky.
Alex Greggs Vs. Ariana Grande
“One Last Time” was the fifth single from Ariana Grande’s 2014 album My Everything. It sounds nothing like “Takes All Night,” one of two songs recorded by Massachusetts native Skye Stevens. Alex Greggs, the songwriter behind “Takes All Night,” is taking Grande and company to court over the alleged similarity, but I’d wager a guess that Grande’s legal team isn’t losing sleep over this one. Both speakers want somebody to “take home.” That’s where it ends.
While I searched hard to find some similarities between the songs, I searched even harder for Skye Stevens. The guy is MIA. He still has an MTV Artists page that boasts of “his active social media presence,” but his website and Twitter page are both out of commission. His latest YouTube video was posted three years ago, and I haven’t been able to find anything written about him since. “Takes All Night” was his shiny debut, an artifact of pop mediocrity that Greggs sees dollar signs in.
The Rick Ross vs. LMFAO shitshow
The density of this case leaves no time for personal anecdotes. So…
Rick Ross wrote a song that went “Everyday I’m hustlin'” in 2006. LMFAO wrote a song that went “Everyday I’m shufflin'” in 2010. In 2013, Ross sued LMFAO for the resemblance, but a 2015 ruling from a Florida judge claimed that Ross’s three words were “not original enough to be copyrightable,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Fair enough. However, three copyright registrations, all filed between February 28, 2006, and February 28, 2007, were discovered in the records, resulting in the Register of Copyrights claiming they shouldn’t have been registered by the U.S. Copyright Office in the first place (“Hustlin’” was played on radio stations and in nightclubs before the first copyright registration, making it a published work). The case is unresolved as of now. I imagine there’s quite a bit of paper shufflin’ on both ends.
Special thanks to Eriq Gardner of The Hollywood Reporter; it’d be wrong (and wicked ironic) to not thank you for making copyright law much more digestible to me, an average human who earned a C+ in a media law class two years ago.