Del Rey-diohead: Looking into the benefits and drawbacks of music copyright laws

By in Culture
Though music copyright has existed for some time, it’s still murky territory.

What do Led Zeppelin, Robin Thicke, John Fogerty, George Harrison and the Verve all have in common? They’ve all been in trouble for copyright infringement.

To kick off this year’s copyright infringement drama, Radiohead and pop star Lana Del Rey are reportedly having a dispute over Del Rey’s 2017 song “Get Free” and its similarities to Radiohead’s 1993 breakout hit “Creep.” Del Rey first spoke about a rumoured litigation against her on Jan. 7.

“It’s true about the lawsuit. Although I know my song wasn’t inspired by Creep, Radiohead feel it was and want 100% of the publishing – I offered up to 40 over the last few months but they will only accept 100. Their lawyers have been relentless, so we will deal with it in court,” Del Rey wrote on Twitter.

As reported by Variety on Jan. 9, Radiohead’s publisher, Warner/Chappell Music, released a statement clarifying the issue and addressing the specifics of Del Rey’s tweet, noting that there is a dispute between the two groups but no actual lawsuit.

“It’s true that we’ve been in discussions since August of last year with Lana Del Rey’s representatives… To set the record straight, no lawsuit has been issued and Radiohead have not said they ‘will only accept 100%’ of the publishing of ‘Get Free,’” the statement read.

Interestingly, adiohead themselves were sued for copyright infringement when a judge found that “Creep” was too similar to the 1974 hit “The Air That I Breathe” by the Hollies. Radiohead had to concede partial songwriting credit to songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood.

If you’ve heard the songs currently in question, you’ll immediately notice the similarities. The verses of Del Rey’s song use the same chords as Radiohead’s song, along with a similarly  recognizable tempo and melody. However, while Del Rey’s song sounds more similar to Radiohead’s song than either of them sound to the Hollies’ song, there’s a larger issue that needs to be considered — should song likenesses be illegal?

Copyright law in the United States lacks a definition when it comes to music copyright — the copyright laws from Title 17 of the United States Code contain exactly one mention of “melody” and no mentions of musical “chords.” Because of this, copyright-infringement decisions are largely based on legal precedents set by other cases.

It is difficult to verbally define what makes songs sound similar. For example, when Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were successfully sued due to the similarity of their song “Blurred Lines” to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” there were no matching chord changes between the two tracks. It was deemed that the beats and rhythms — essentially the “feel” — of the songs were too similar.

Following the decision, Williams explained his displeasure with how the case turned out.

“The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else… Everything that’s around you in a room was inspired by something or someone. If you kill that, there’s no creativity,” Williams told the Financial Times.

Though copyright laws can constrain creativity, some artists, writers and musicians have noted the potential creative benefits of this constraint. This includes André Gide — a Nobel Prize laureate in literature — who wrote at length on the issue of artistic constraint.

“Art aspires to freedom only in periods of illness, when it would prefer to live easily. Whenever it feels vigorous, it seeks struggle and obstacle… Art is born of constraint, lives on struggle, dies of freedom,” Gide said.

Maybe nothing is new — or at least not anymore. However, artists should perhaps consider this an opportunity rather than complain about how confusing, unwieldy and restrictive copyright laws can be. It could be an opportunity not to be lazy and a chance to try something new.

Tiess McKenzie

Photo: Tim Cheesman / Flickr