12/03/2015

Original sin: The blurred line between influence and imitation

BY Julian Gorham

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery we are told.

So what are we to make of news that a jury in the United States has ruled that the writers of Blurred Lines – one of the best-selling singles of all time – copied a Marvin Gaye track?

Jurors in Los Angeles have decided that the 2013 single by Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke breached the copyright of Gaye’s 1977 hit Got To Give It Up. The family of the late soul singer has been awarded $7.3m (£4.8m) in damages.

Williams had told jurors that he was ‘channelling… that late-70s feeling’ when he co-wrote the song, but the jury found it to be not so much channelling as cheating.

Now all this is nothing new – because, in truth, very few things are really new: the list of tunes that sound like other tunes is endless. From the recent Sam Smith and Tom Petty judgment to the long legals over George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ and the Ronnie Mack song ‘He’s So Fine.’ Even timeless rockers Led Zeppelin aren’t immune: Many say that the opening guitar arpeggios to (the overrated) ‘Stairway to Heaven’ bear a close resemblance to the 1968 instrumental ‘Taurus’ by the group Spirit, with whom they toured in the late 60s. It is said that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music has been ‘inspired’ by the great classical composers: They, in turn, nicked stuff off each other all the time. Sorry Bob Dylan fans but there are those who say Bob Dylan nicked Woody Guthrie’s entire act.

And of course, it all goes beyond music.

Art, food, political ideas, philosophy, architecture, opinion, everything: Who said that, when it comes down to it, there are only really 7 film plots? Certainly anyone who’s been in the communications business more than a few minutes can see the same ideas being churned out all the time – and especially as companies try to reach global audiences with ‘international’ ideas that all seem to blend (or bland) into one another.

Originality does exist, but it’s rarer than a seat on the Northern Line and the line between influence and imitation is a blurred one.

Creative people of every kind must do more than just copy to own an idea.

And there’s another thing: In a world where everyone can see everything online it’s never been more difficult to be ‘original’ because it’s never been more difficult to be seen to be original.

After all, who hasn’t been in a presentation where the client was Googling the logo or strapline you’ve just created as you present it?

Better get a good lawyer.