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Blurry Lines

Immature artists copy. Mature artists steal – Variously Ascribed

The verdict on the Blurred Lines lawsuit is ridiculous. emilyThe style of both songs is similar, but you can’t copyright style. The bass lines are similar, but not the same. The melody is entirely different. The lyrics are different. This isn’t one artist going after another artist for theft, this is the family of a dead artist making a money grab and, unfortunately, succeeding.

Blatant, verbatim plagiarism is the unforgivable sin for musicians, writers or comics. It’s a line no self-respecting artist would ever cross intentionally. But borrowing, being inspired by, or influenced by other artists are often blurry lines. While we should condemn Led Zeppelin for stealing nearly every song they ever recorded (they should be considered a cover band), should we denigrate Lady GaGa for stealing Madonna’s shtick?

The net is full of videos about song plagiarism, so I won’t go into that here. Here’s a rather good one, though, which includes the bizarre case of John Fogerty being sued by his record label for sounding too much like himself on a later song.

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People who aren’t involved in the creative arts have no idea how easy it is to rip something off unintentionally. You’ll hear a tune or lyric, or read a line that you like, and then forget it. Then one or two or ten years later it pops into your head, posing as your own inspired brilliance, and you eagerly share it with the world, only to find out you’ve inadvertently stolen it from someone else.

I’ve done this myself. A few decades ago, I amused myself by writing and performing funny songs, interspersed with stand-up commentary on current events. My talent was in the lyrics – my music was never anything special.

I had a poem I wanted to turn into a song, but couldn’t come up with the music. But one day, while noodling around, inspiration struck. I came up with a great tune. It not only fit the words perfectly, it was much, much better than most of my other music.

I practiced it, proud of my accomplishment, and looked forward to performing it at my next gig.

Three days later I realized the music was, note for note, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. Fortunately, I figured it out before I went on stage and embarrassed myself.

It is also quite possible, in fact, likely, for two people to come with the same idea at the same time, and expresses it the same way. Many times I’d write a joke about a current event, and before I could perform it, hear it on the Tonight Show. I didn’t think Carson was stealing my stuff – his writers just came up with the same idea.

Many years ago I came up with a throw-away line about politics and pets that I’ve used ever since, sometimes expounding on it a bit. The other day I saw a blog post that used my line as a title, and then expanded on it with a short whimsical article. Did the author steal that from me? Did he hear it from someone else who had repeated it? Did he independently come up with it on his own?

I don’t know or particularly care. But I might not be so nonchalant if I could turn it into a seven million dollar lawsuit.

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