Does the risk of copyright infringement promote or hinder creativity?
Music Copyright Laws & Innovation: The Current Space
The opportunity to innovate is the ‘north star’ for all music artists. The potential of finite chances to explore new territory far outweighs the moments in between, and these gems of boundless creativity are what every artist chases every time they set foot in the studio. In an online world that stimulates, facilitates and celebrates innovation more than ever, one could be forgiven for assuming that the industry is in its most fruitful and creative state.
However, this reality is in question. As is the case in every blooming creative field, the ease with which we can now write, produce, release & even consume music hasn’t come without its fair share of legal pushback. Combine a frighteningly-saturated music market with a myriad of copyright restrictions (and eventually lawsuits) and a very different image is painted; one of an overcrowded proverbial minefield which leaves little room for genuine creativity & innovation.
A 2022 Instagram post from Ed Sheeran - a face on music’s ‘Mount Rushmore’ and winner of previous multiple lawsuits from the defendant’s seat - highlights the dichotomy behind unforgiving copyright laws within an industry that encourages and even facilitates fast & frequent releases. Sheeran highlights that, if roughly 60,000 tracks are released every single day - a number which is thought to have doubled now - there is bound to be crossover between tracks.
Perhaps, this is emblematic of a larger discussion surrounding copyright and its impact on innovation in the music industry. Just where should the line be? Well, in this blog, learn about the dynamic landscape of music copyright laws, exploring the balance that they keep between protection and innovation as new works are created.
Copyright Laws Promote Innovation: The Defence
While copyright’s involvement in music doesn’t initially connote freedom or creativity, digging deeper may offer a different perspective. By definition, copyright laws exist to ensure that artists aren’t using material that is already owned, and thus to provoke artists to look for new territory when creating future pieces of art. As a result, it could be argued that copyright laws promote innovation by discouraging artists to draw heavily from previous works, and thus leaving no option but for new works to be created.
As mentioned, and as echoed by Sheeran, the music market is more saturated than ever. With just 12 notes in the musical scale, yet 10,000 times this number of songs released daily, finding new territory seems virtually impossible. In addition, many musical genres such as Pop, House & RnB, have musical frameworks built into their idiom, and straying too far away from appropriate chords, progressions and scales may actually be detrimental to the artist. Plenty of songs copy chord progressions, and it’s been argued that the frequency of household-name cases such as Sheeran’s reflect far more the prosecuting party’s goal of targeting an artist’s estate than upholding the values of musical individualism, otherwise there would be far more claims made on a micro-level.
It seems that the most effective way to navigate copyright laws as an artist is to tread a line; to tip the hat to the genre’s sensibilities whilst looking for disciplined opportunities to introduce a new flavor within the guidelines. If this is the majority outcome, then it may be argued that copyright laws catalyze forward movement within music, encouraging us to find subtle ways to differentiate and push our art forward into the future.
Copyright Laws Hinder Innovation: The Prosecution
Ultimately, your view on whether copyright laws play a promotional role in musical innovation depends entirely on how strict or unfair you believe these laws are. Along with Sheeran, major artists have spoken out against copyright laws, taking the viewpoint that they often penalize unfairly or with ugly intentions.
Skip to 28:30 in this interview between moguls Pharrell Williams & Rick Rubin, as they discuss Pharrell’s song “Blurred Lines” which fell victim to a lawsuit despite the fact that it displayed minimal similarities on a musical theory level with the song it was pinned up against - “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye. What’s interesting is that Pharrell does not dispute that his songs – of which “Blurred Lines” is a more successful example of – are the result of a “reverse-engineering” of works that inspired him, but instead contends that there are intrinsic differences that only creative minds understand the significance of. He provides the example of the fabrics rayon and silk, both very similar to a lehman yet understood to be inherently different in the textile space.
This discussion offers a different perspective on copyright legislation; it is ok to draw from previous works, as long as you build on them using your own artistic identity. Mirroring musical elements to create a similar feeling can actually be a massively successful way of creating nostalgia and therefore emotional investment in your work. However, as a result of copyright legislation, this work can be reprimanded unfairly by anyone unimpededly, which hinders & discourages the process of innovating beyond past works if there is any lingering flavor of the past work within the new.
The Jury’s Verdict
Ultimately, copyright laws were introduced as a productive measure, rather than to harm or impede creativity. With this in mind, most would argue that it's ok to build upon previous works, but in a way that aligns with copyright regulations and respects the original artists.
In order to gain a comprehensive view, it’s also important to look at the Y as well as the X axis. Significant copyright cases typically take place between larger artists, or at least with songs that stream significantly, leading many to speculate on the intentions of those in the prosecuting corner. The degree of fairness in cases such as Sheeran & Williams - both won by the defending party - is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, but what is undoubtedly true is that copyright laws affect artists more if they sit higher in the food chain. Their threat is felt far less on a micro-level, instead acting as a subtle directive for artists to innovate & explore new corners of the space.
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