On my commute to work this morning, over the din of chattering businesspeople and the train whizzing through the tunnel, I heard a man listening, and pleasantly bopping along, to Men at Work’s “Down Under.” Initially, I felt like bopping right along with him, that familiar, infectious rhythm making me smile despite myself. After a couple stops, it got me thinking about the lawsuit brought against the band in 2009 for allegedly using several bars of the Australian folklore song “The Kookaburra Song” in the melody of their international pop hit without permission. Never a missed chance to ruminate on copyright infringement!
The music industry is replete with these sorts of hairsplitting accusations that dominate the world of rights and permissions, a vital part of any creative endeavor.
When Lady Gaga released her highly anticipated single “Born This Way” from her most recent album of the same name in February, the crowd went wild. The internet was inundated with people wanting to give their thoughts on the pop maven’s newest musical venture – they loved it, hated it, idolized her, thought she had gone too far. The most echoed of the voices, though, was the claim that the song copied its melodic structure from reigning pop queen Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” Critics had a field day with this. Suddenly everyone was listening to the two songs back to back to see if they could spot the similarities. After giving both songs a very thorough listen, I have to say, I have a clear favorite, but I also can’t quite make out the supposed rip off. Gaga agrees.
But don’t just take my word for it. Check them out for yourself and see if you can find merit to this allegation littering the web.
So what does Madonna have to say about all of this? After all, she and co-writer/producer Stephen Bray do hold the copyright for the iconic anthem released in 1989. Do they feel their artistic integrity and legal rights have been infringed upon? At this point, it’s hard to say. CNN reported shortly after the release of Lady Gaga’s contentious single that though Gaga told Jay Leno she received an email from Madonna’s representatives sending along the pop veteran’s love and support, those same reps claimed to have never told Gaga anything. The world may never know.
This brings up an interesting question of the difference between simply using someone else’s work as inspiration while making nods to their style and downright copying. Critics find Cee Lo Green’s “Bright Lights Bigger City” to be reminiscent of the much-beloved “Billie Jean,” something which doesn’t seem to bother the fans at all. In fact, sampling of beats, loops, and whole sections of other artists’ songs has been a popular form of music creation for decades. Take a look at Gregg Michael Gillis, better known by his stage name Girl Talk. He’s made an entire career out of doing just that. (One of the oldest songs using this mashup style was recorded in 1956 by Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman, then known as “break-in,” a hilarious predecessor to the now insanely popular music genre.)
The real question here is: is all of this legal? And if it is, should it not be?
Girl Talk’s label Illegal Art assures that the musician is operating fully within his rights under a Creative Commons license, and even provides an exhaustive list of all the songs, and their respective artists, sampled in his latest album on their website.
Men At Work, however, were not quite as lucky. Larrkin Music Publishing, who owns the rights to “The Kookaburra Song” filed suit against Ron Strykert and Colin Hay, the two Men At Work who wrote the song, as well as their former record label. The men were said to have reproduced a “substantial portion” of the old folklore song, and had thus infringed upon Larrkin’s executive rights. After a lengthy appeals process, Larrkin eventually won out on the grounds that the 1981 hit did, in fact, reproduce a noticeable part of the old song, which I believe to be the right decision. Take a listen and see.
That offending flute, which is so recognizable in the unofficial Australian anthem, clearly plays out the melody of this childhood tune.
I’m all for artistic interpretation and using great works that came before you as inspiration for your own form of expression, but does that mean we should do away with copyrights altogether? Do they stifle creativity?
I think quite the opposite, actually. Copyrights allow for the people who spent the time, energy and mind power on an original project to receive the acknowledgement (and compensation) for their work, especially if it’s benefiting the population enough to warrant imitation.