Coming soon to a pop court near you
That old saying about hits and writs comes to mind when you consider the latest slew of music-related court actions
No-one should really be in the least bit surprised that one of the biggest and most controversial hits of the year is still making waves. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” has undoubtedly been a huge hit, but it’s also been a big news story beyond the radio airplay and sales charts. The controversy over the video and “rapey” lyrics has led 20 different UK universities to ban the song. And the less said about that VMA appearance the better too.
But perhaps the surest sign that the song has been a hit comes in the shape of legal cases. In this case, we’re talking actions and counter-actions over claims that Thicke and his co-writers stole the music for “Blurred Lines” from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”. While they were at it, the Gaye estate also claimed that Thicke went on a supermarket sweep nicking parts for “Love After War” from Gaye’s “After the Dance” and for “Make U Love Me” from the Motown great’s “I Want You”.
All of that would be enough to be going on for in courtroom pop drama – and more than enough billable hours to send a flock of junior legal eagles through school and college – but enter a company called Tuf America, whose business model involves buying the rights to old songs and then striving to find artists who have sampled those tunes without prior permission. Some readers may remember Tuf America appearing on the radar last year when they sued the Beastie Boys around the time band member MCA passed away and they also pointed their legal guns at Kanye West.
Their latest target is Jay-Z, with Tuf America claiming that Jigga has used part of Eddie Bo’s “Hook and Sling” on “Run This Town”. When they’re not involved in cases like this, they’re suing legal firms for not keeping proper billing records. Like some Irish live music promoters, Tuf America seem to love a day out in court.
Of course, those who believe themselves to be aggrieved by unlicensed and unauthorised sampling are fully entitled to their say. But, at the same time, it’s worth examining how such lawsuits may well serve to scupper innovation and artistic expression. Then, there’s also the fact that any of the money recovered will go first to investors and shareholders before eeking its way back to the artist or songwriter.
But it’s the bigger picture around such cases which deserves more attention. As Eduardo Porter pointed out in the New York Times, there are parallels to be drawn between hip-hop’s sampling wars and the fact that many tech companies spend as much time suing oneanother as coming up with new ideas:
“Hip-hop may have little to do with high tech. But its experience carries a stark warning for the future of technology. High-tech behemoths in a range of businesses like mobile computing and search and social networking have been suing one another to protect their intellectual property from what they see as the blatant copying and cloning by their rivals. Regardless of the legitimacy of their claims, the aggressive litigation could have a devastating effect on society as a whole, short-circuiting innovation.”