What do Pharrell Williams and Anton Bruckner Have In Common?

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The West

By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Some rants about the verdict that a misguided jury slapped upon Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to the tune of $7.4 million for plagiarism …

Let me say upfront that it’s a bum rap. I’ve heard “Blurred Lines” several times, and it is a very different song from Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” in virtually every way. I should know, for Marvin’s groove-a-thon has been engraved in my brain ever since I got a hold of an advance single of the song when I was working in a long-defunct Hollywood record shop. Only the rhythm track is similar, and you can’t copyright a rhythm track. This jury says in effect that you can. If so, come on over, coppers, and arrest me for possession of an illegal Roland rhythm machine in my music room.

What would happen if you could apply this jury’s judgment to every example of music making since prehistoric man thought of hitting a stick on a rock? The legal briefs would have flown over the Alps between J.S. Bach and Vivaldi on the issue of duplicating concertos. Beethoven would have sued Schubert for quoting the former’s Ninth Symphony in the latter’s Ninth Symphony. His estate could have sued Bruckner; while Bruckner didn’t copy the notes of the opening of the Ninth, he did copy the “feel” over and over in symphony after symphony, and that means lawsuit time.

Stravinsky was lucky that Tchaikovsky’s and Pergolesi’s music were in the public domain; otherwise, no Le Baiser de la Fee or Pulcinella. Leonard Bernstein would have been the target of Benjamin Britten for the opening notes of “A Boy Like That” in West Side Story (gracias, Donna Perlmutter, for pointing that out), and Lenny’s friends Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein could get in on the legal fun, too. The whole bebop movement would have been put out of business as per Charles Mingus’s half-joking song title, “If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats” – and Parker himself would have been sued by the Gershwin estate for plundering the “I Got Rhythm” chord progression.

In other words, if this verdict sets a precedent, from now on every musician in every field will be looking over their shoulders in paranoid fear of some clever lawyer ready to drive a stake through their reputations. If musical creativity is really on the decline in our century as many seem to believe, this could finish it off.

Date posted: March 13, 2015

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