The ‘Blurred Lines’ of artistic plagiarism

Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke. Image via zenfs.com

We are reaching the end of artistic originality

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. March 16, 2015

There is an old saying by Pablo Picasso that I take to heart every time I work on a creative project: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” While it might sound like Picasso is supporting the notion of plagiarism, I actually believe he is condoning something different; he is saying that great artists are able to take ownership of their creation, which is inspired by a pre-existing work. But isn’t that what Robin Thicke did with the hit single “Blurred Lines”?

After listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” from 1977, I am disappointed that the quote I have lived by—that Picasso probably stole from someone he overheard at a bar—had no support in the court of law. It might have seemed like millionaires arguing for a slice of a pie baked from a familiar recipe, but the event that took place will now open the door for many more lawsuits to come.

It’s clear “Got to Give it Up” and “Blurred Lines” share similar beats, but the two songs are not the same. The two songs do not have the same lyrics, the same theme, or the same audience. How many dance clubs are playing Gaye? With each passing generation, artists draw inspiration from works from the past. That is how creativity functions. Creativity does not exist in a vacuum. Artists take pieces from here and there and combine them. Can a cinematographer copyright a camera move? Can a painter copyright the scenery they painted? Can a musician copyright a series of musical notes?

More recently, Sam Smith was on the radar for his song “Stay With Me,” which to many sounding suspiciously similar to a slower version of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” In this case, Smith accepted a settlement and credited Petty as a co-writer. The not-so-petty Petty will now receive a portion of the money for “Stay With Me” and this may be a common trend for the future. Artists will be credited for works which merely influenced, or that coincidence caused the two to clash.

There is more music than there is time to enjoy it. Because of this, notes, rhythm, and melody will be replicated in some form. We call it plagiarism and perhaps it is. But the same way we don’t copy and paste words from Wikipedia, musicians don’t crop and paste music from iTunes. You take the content and you make it your own.

I still believe in the idea that great artists steal, because the artists today will always be standing on the shoulders of giants that preceded them. What’s different now is the system protecting those giants. We as artists need to craft our creative work better so that it doesn’t resemble that from the past. More than ever, we need to make our work our own. If that means adding a banjo, so be it. If that means a sitar, well damn it, play that sitar. If that means more cowbells, well, it’s about time we cure that insatiable thirst for cowbells already. Then we wait for someone else to copy us.

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