By: Elizabeth Vulaj

If you’re a singer or songwriter, chances are you’ve been influenced by other artists’ work.  In the past few years, a number of musicians have filed lawsuits against other performers for copyright infringement, claiming that their songs have been copied.  But so many artists are inspired by the rhythms, lyrics, and compositions of other songs.  So where do you draw the line between inspiration and infringement?

For artists like Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, that line is easily blurred.  In 2015, the two were ordered to pay $7.3 million to the estate of Marvin Gaye, after Gaye’s family successfully claimed the pair’s 2013 smash, “Blurred Lines,” infringed on Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.”  Williams and Thicke have since appealed, and filed a brief with the support of over 200 musicians, including artists such as R. Kelly and Jennifer Hudson, claiming that a “groove or feeling cannot be copyrighted, and inspiration is not copying.”  Ruling on the appeal is scheduled for next year.  While the court in the “Blurred Lines” case sided with Gaye, others have not been so quick to agree with similar infringement claims.  Last year, Led Zeppelin won their trial against the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, after the estate claimed Led Zeppelin used the introduction from Spirit’s 1968 hit “Taurus” in “Stairway to Heaven.”

So what does this mean for today’s musicians?  There are only 12 musical pitch notes in the world to experiment with.  Some of these creations are bound to sound similar to other works.  Of course directly copying lyrics, melodies, harmonies, chord progressions and even rhythms is a big no-no, but what if you’re working on a song that is different in all of these aspects but has a similar “groove” or “vibe” as another piece of work?

Many artists and industry professionals have argued that the “Blurred Lines” decision was incorrect, claiming that the two songs are set in different keys, have no similar lyrics, and that no one would likely confuse the two melodies.  Even though the case is up for appeal, the initial ruling sends the message that artists need to be super cautious when writing or composing a song.

There’s no clear-cut way to guarantee successfully preventing an infringement case from coming your way, but consider these few things to protect yourself and your work:

  • Registering any unpublished work you have with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • If you plan to sample music – the act of taking a portion of a sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in your own song – you must contact the artist or their estate to get clearance to use the snippets beforehand.
  • Many aspiring singers and songwriters cover popular songs by other musicians to gain initial traction – if you choose to do a cover, get a mechanical license from the song’s copyright owner before posting your audio on any platform.
  • Keep in mind that if the artist whose work you’re sampling is signed to a major record label, the label will most likely own the rights to the recordings. In which case, contact the label directly.
  • Also, don’t forget that you need permission from the songwriters too!

It may seem like a lot, but taking these precautionary measures will help avoid potential infringement claims and problems in the future.  Don’t let legal troubles get in the way of creating your next big hit!

Elizabeth Vulaj

Graduate Law Clerk

(212) 865-9848

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