You Can’t Copyright A Feeling – My Thoughts On The “Blurred Lines” Verdict

2015 Artwork  A feeling can't be copyrighted article sketch

Although this is an article about creativity, copyright and inspiration in general, I’m going to start by talking about *ugh* popular music and the music industry for a while.

Back in March, I read an opinion article by Bob Stanley about a court case in America, where the estate of Marvin Gaye successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for copyright infringement. The case focused on the similarities between “Blurred Lines” by Thicke and Williams and “Got To Give It Up” by Gaye.

Although more detailed information about the case itself can be found in this Rolling Stone article, Bob Stanely’s opinion piece about the case contained a rather chilling explanation of the possible impact of the ruling: “Williams and Robin Thicke haven’t been accused of sampling, stealing lyrics or melodies here, just the “feel” of Marvin Gaye’s Got To Give It Up.

The rest of Bob Stanely’s opinion piece goes on to explain what virtually every creative person already knows – that is, that there is no such thing as a truly “original” work.

In other words, if someone is bleating about how musicians, writers, artists, film-makers etc.. should “just be original“, then there’s a very good chance that they’ve never actually created anything. In other words, they are probably talking out of another orifice than their mouth.

This is because it is literally impossible to create something without being (knowingly or unknowingly) inspired by something else. This is because we are all immersed in the cultures surrounding all of us. It’s all that we know and it is bound to have at least a small influence on what we create.

Even the oldest creative works known to humanity (eg: cave paintings) weren’t entirely original. After all, how could our prehistoric ancestors paint imagined scenes of hunters and animals, unless they’d actually seen hunters and animals in real life?

So, although it’s pretty obvious that I agree with what Bob Stanley says in his article about the case, I thought that I’d also give you my own thoughts on this court case and it’s implications too.

The court’s idea that copying the “feeling” of something is an illegal act of copyright infringement is both fundamentally wrong and also extremely anti-creative. In fact, it could probably kill off creativity as we know it. Well, for famous musicians anyway….

From my understanding (I’m not a lawyer though), copyright laws exist in order to protect the expression of a particular idea, rather than the idea itself.

What this means is that whilst things like specific song lyrics, specific character designs etc… can be copyrighted, the underlying ideas behind these things (including the “feel” of something) cannot be copyrighted.

To use a famous example, Superman is a copyrighted character. If you made and sold a comic about a man from the planet Krypton called Clark Kent who had superhuman strength and fought villains whilst wearing a hilariously silly blue and red spandex outfit with a giant “S” on the chest, you’d be breaking copyright.

However, if you created a totally different character who also had superhuman strength (eg: the basic idea behind the character of Superman) – then you wouldn’t be breaking copyright. In fact, the whole superhero genre relies on this fact.

The reason why copyright laws around the world often make this distinction is because giving someone the copyright to an idea would severely stunt the development of humanity and culture as a whole (eg: imagine if someone had copyrighted the idea of democracy, of clothing, of rhyming poetry, of comic books etc.. I’m sure you get the idea).

No, what copyright law does is to ensure that people do new and different things with the same ideas.

It means that if someone finds something really cool that they like, then they can’t just lazily copy it and claim it as their own work. Instead, they have to take a look at what made that thing so cool and find a way to create something even cooler, using the same ideas.

This is why the court’s opinion that the “feel” of something can be copyrighted is so disturbing. As soon as a basic idea such as this ends up in private hands, then it means that no-one else can do anything with it (unless they are very rich). A whole area of human and cultural development has been shut away from almost everyone, and left to wither away and die.

Not only that, improving upon the ideas of others and finding new ways to express things that are part of our world (and the cultures within it) is a central part of creativity. So, in theory at least, this verdict could outlaw all forms of creative work.

So, should you be worried?

Probably not. The music industry has a reputation for both extreme financial greed and a near-fanatical obsession with copyright.

In other words, they’re a bunch of greedy, arrogant, micro-controlling bankers (well, something that sounds like “bankers” anyway). Most other creative industries (with the possible exception of the American film industry) thankfully aren’t quite as bad as the music industry in this respect.

There’s also the old saying that “where there’s a hit, there’s a writ“. In other words, if someone is rich and/or famous enough, then everyone will try to take some of their money (using whatever legal pretext they can).

So, if you aren’t a musician, you aren’t rich and you aren’t famous, then you probably don’t have to be worried about anything. Even so, this court ruling sets a very dangerous and disturbing precedent – which I hope will be reversed on appeal.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂


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