A meditation on the music industry’s apparently relaxed attitude toward copyright

April 29, 2013

Music CopyrightIn April 23 interview, Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas tried to explain how parts of “Let’s Go,” his collaboration with Chris Brown, came to sound a lot like “Rebound,” a 2011 song by Russian DJ duo Arty & Mat Zo.

In the interview, Will.i.am claimed to have shown the song to Arty, but said that over the year between that demo and when the song was released, there was an issue with obtaining the rights, and “Let’s Go” got released before proper legal permission was secured.

That’s a plausible explanation, but it doesn’t quite mesh with Arty and Mat Zo’s claims that Will.i.am stole it outright from them. They’ve both been quite blunt on social media, claiming that “Let’s Go” constitutes out-and-out theft. That would imply, of course, that they were never on board with Will.i.am using their song.

I didn’t want to write about this issue because I don’t like Chris Brown (ugh) or Will.i.am that much. What interests me is the very…relaxed nature of artists in the recording industry when it comes to “borrowing” or “sampling” other artists’ works.

Sure, there are cover songs, like Shiny Toy Guns’ take on “Major Tom,” a pop hit Peter Schilling crafted using a character invented by David Bowie.

In those cases, though, the contemporary artist has almost always paid for the right to re-record the song, and usually the original artist has also given their permission. (Notable and hilarious exception: Kelly Clarkson“Since U Been Gone” and Kidz Bop).

But there are more examples of situations where it is at least claimed that one artist just straight-up stole from another.

Coldplay, for example, had to give Kraftwerk co-writing credits after the fact because Coldplay’s song “Talk” had a keyboard riff that sounded as though it were lifted straight from Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love.”  Avril Lavigne settled a lawsuit with The Rubinoos over her song “Girlfriend,” so we’ll never know if it really is a copy of their song “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.”

(Buzzfeed has plenty more examples.)

To me, the very derivative nature of many pop songs these days raises a lot of questions that are difficult to answer.

For example, when does inspiration become legally impermissible imitation? We’re all products of our environment, after all, so how possible is it that anyone could come up with something completely, 100 percent original — something completely different from anything that has ever reached human ears? Any time I hear about someone accused of swiping someone else’s song, I wonder if it was a genuine mistake; if the songs sound too much alike, I wonder how it’s possible that it could be.

I feel like in short order, we’ll find out what the real story is behind “Let’s Go” and “Rebound,” or else Will.i.am will pay Arty and Mat Zo a lot of money and they’ll suddenly stop accusing him of artistic theft. Either way, I doubt this will be the last time we hear about alleged copyright infringement in the Top 40.