Friday, March 13, 2015

What does the "Blurred Lines" verdict mean for publishing?

T.S. Eliot suggested "good writers borrow, great writers steal." A recent jury verdict in the music industry proves that following this advice can be costly.  Very costly.

"Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams was the song of Summer 2013. Its melodies and beat were familiar. Very familiar.  Marvin Gaye's family said they were too familiar - like Gaye's "Got to Give it Up."  And as is the case in any modern story, litigation ensued.

Thicke admitted in a GQ article that preceded the litigation that he and Williams were listening to "Got to Give it Up" in the studio and decided they should do something similar.  He admitted to being deeply influenced by Marvin Gaye's music.  And with this, the debate began as to what difference existed between "being influenced by" and "copying."  This week, a jury found the difference would cost Thicke and Williams $7.4 million dollars.

The debate won't end with music.  Numerous books that have hit the best seller lists are admitted heavily influenced by other works.  This raises the question as to how the "Blurred Lines" verdict will translate into publishing.  Will works that started as fan-fiction and then were later modified into their own world fall into the category of "Blurred Lines?"  Where will the line be drawn?  In the "Blurred Lines" case there was no allegation that the song was stolen or plagiarized, just that heavy similarities suggested that the "Blurred Lines" was benefiting from the good will or popularity of the original work that inspired it.

T.S. Eliot's writing advice inevitably will lead the publishing world to question the Blurred Lines in fiction between "deeply influenced" and plagiarism.  What are your thoughts?

You compare, "Got to Give it Up"

To "Blurred Lines"


Ali Hubbard said...

Great post, Heather! This topic is so interesting to me. When I heard Blurred Lines the first time, I thought of the Marvin Gaye song because I had listened to it a million times in my youth. lolol. Not to say it's exactly the same. Just a vibe. I'm not sure if a vibe should be enough. I mean, rock and roll was influenced by blues and jazz, etc. Sometimes influence is progression or expansion but not plagiarism.

When I read 50, I never had ANY thoughts of Twilight. And at that time, I wasn't really thinking of writing, so I didn't know the history or anything about the fan fic side of it.

Another recent example is the settlement between Tom Petty and Sam Smith over the similarities between "Stay with Me" and "Won't Back Down." After it was brought up, I could hear some common parts (and Sam Smith claimed he never even heard the other song, which is possible with his age). So this, was not even "influence," but "accidental" likeness. That concerns me too.

With books, we know there are "tropes." So, at that level, it seems to be fine to have a similarity. But, the blurred line is where does similarity in a work become violation of intellectual property law.

I don't know how to answer that!!!!! :-)

But there are only so many situations/tropes. It's the writing and voice that will hopefully distinguish between them. But, I guess time will tell. I'm curious how it will impact books.

Great post!

Ginny Lynn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ginny Lynn said...

The world is about rebirth. We recycle, plant new trees, and even recreate books on computers as to save those trees. Movies are reworked with new age touches and music is always inspiring someone to do something unique. How many times has King Kong, Frankenstein, and Dracula been redone? So why is this any different? To me, it's not. I can watch a movie and get at least three ways to change it to my perspective. That doesn't mean my ideas are any better but they are from my point of view. Life is rebirth and a gift, so it's not a crime to use inspiration as long as you don't corrupt the original work with a perverted amount of plagiarism.
Off Soapbox :-)

Heather said...

Thanks Ali! This case reminded me of the phrase my college lit professor used frequently - "everything since Shakespeare is redundant." My worry is that lawyers (and I know how they think :)) will see this as an opportunity to expand the "Blurred Lines" logic into other intellectual areas, like publishing. That can be scary because writers are voracious readers. We are all heavily influenced by our favorites. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it is proving to be dangerous as well!

Heather said...

Great point Ginny! Some of my favorite books are "classics" with a new spin put on them. For pity's sake, the Lion King is a fuzzy version of Hamlet and Richard III.

Carla Swafford said...

Since there are only 12 plots or so out there (supposedly), we'll see similarities. In writing, it would have to be word for word or something very close to be living dangerously (and wrong). I never thought of Twilight while reading 50 Shades. I only thought of the 100 plus books with the same type of activities I've read over the years. For that matter, I bet there's a book before Twilight that was similar. I know I kept thinking how much alike it was to all the vampire books I had read previously. Only difference was it was set for teenagers and not adults, and they sparkled (LOL!).

How many books have we read that were like Romeo and Juliet, but with a happy ending (thanks goodness) and so on?

To me, books are totally a different kettle of fish.

But if you were to use the same names, locations, plot, and scenes that fish might be a little stinky.

Jillian said...

Very intriguing topic. I'm with Ali about the vibe of the songs being similar but unlike her, I didn't think of Marvin when I heard it. I didn't even relate the two until I saw the info on the suit. I'm a huge Marvin fan but it had to be pointed out to me that they were similar before I noticed it. That obviously says something about my ear for music - lol

I think it's truly a slippery slope we're seeing here. Comparisons have always been made but now that we are truly a global community and more and more things are on the internet with easy access by anyone, I think we'll see more of this kind of thing.

There are two songs on the radio I hear sometimes (and of course, at the moment, I can't think of them) that I ALWAYS think it's the start of one and winds up being the other. To me, that is true plagiarism.

Chris Bailey said...

There's a lot of similarity in the beat and the way the voices are used--but for me, that's where it ends. Blurred Lines sounds current, Got to Give It Up sounds--like Marvin Gaye. Have we talked here about Tess Gerritson's Gravity suit? I think she has a strong case.

Heather said...

Great points Carla. Most of my favorite movies and books are derivative from some other work. West Side Story - hello!

Heather said...

Jillian - great points. This isn't the Vanilla Ice "Ice Ice Baby" vs. Queen's/Bowie's "Under Pressure" There are similar feels between Blurred Lines and Marvin Gaye's song, but there are also distinct differences. The potential chilling effect of this verdict on creativity is scary.

Heather said...

Chris - great point about Gravity. I have been watching that as well. Totally agree with your assessment of the strength of her position. She did a wonderful blog post about the comparisons between her book and movie:

Cari Hislop said...

I don't agree with the ruling. A couple of drunk or stoned musicians were listening to a song and were inspired...there were similarities, but it's not in any way verbatim or however one would say that for music...chordatim? auditoralisticallyatim? So why should they fork over 7 million dollars? To me this just sounds like a retirement funding plan for older musicians (What was the medium age of the jury?). What if the two men had never heard Gaye's song, but couldn't prove they'd never heard the song? I'd never heard Marvin Gayes version (though to be honest I'd never heard the Thicke version either - missed that one completely). Are we going to be sued for happenstance now? It's crazy!

Heather said...

I agree Cari - that is what is frightening about this ruling. The song isn't a copy. Yes, there are similarities, but if that becomes the legal standard, everyone will be in trouble.