Legal advice to musicians, after "Blurred Lines": pretend you have no influences

It's been two years since Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke lost a lawsuit brought by Marvin Gaye's descendants, who argued that their song "Blurred Lines" infringed Gay's 1977 song "Got to Give It To You," not because it copied the music per se, but because it copied its "vibe."

Now, on the eve of Williams' and Thicke's appeal, the BBC reports that the verdict has had profound effects on the way that musicians talk about their compositions.

On the one hand, musicians are now being given legal advice not to admit to being influenced by anyone and to deny any inspiration from any source. On the other hand — and for the same reason — the labels' legal departments are requiring disclosure forms that enumerate every possible influence or inspiration in the artist's background, to prepare themselves for an eventual lawsuit.

The reality, of course, is that influence is how all art gets made (see Johnathan Lethem's seminal 2007 essay "The Ecstasy of Influence" for more on this).

Moreover, music has always involved the kinds of takings that the Gaye estate sued over — Gaye himself would have never had a career if he'd been held to the standard that his descendants held Williams and Thicke to. As Jennifer Jenkins and James Boyle traced in their must-read, open access comic, "Theft: A History of Music", musicians have always balanced on a knife-edge of contradiction, taking from other musicians to make their compositions and insisting that this is legitimate artistic progress — but suing and decrying other musicians who did this to them.

According to forensic musicologist Peter Oxendale "everyone's concerned that inspiration can [now be interpreted as] a catalyst for infringement.

"All of these companies are worried that if a track is referenced on another at all, there may be a claim being brought," he explains.

Mr Oxendale says some artists are now having the requirement to name their influences written into contracts by their record labels – although he would not specify names.

"Many of the companies that I work with ask the producers and the artists to declare all of the tracks that may have been used as inspiration for their new tracks," he says.

He also confirmed that he is being sent new music to check the possibility of future copyright infringement claims.

Is the threat of a copyright lawsuit stifling music?
[Chi Chi Izundu/BBC]