Anyone who follows New Zealand news will likely be aware of the Eminem v National Party copyright saga currently playing out in the High Court. Amusing as it is to see rap music being adduced as evidence in a court of law, the significance of this proceeding goes beyond fodder for a John Oliver segment. If the National Party has learned anything in recent months, it is that the recording industry is not to be messed with.
Members of the industry are also learning this same lesson, and at great cost. Last month, Ed Sheeran settled a US$20m plagiarism lawsuit after the writers of Matt Cardle's song 'Amazing' alleged that Sheeran's song 'Photograph' was a "note-for-note" copy of their work. This is but one of a number of copyright disputes among artists, including other claims against Sheeran and, most notably, the 2015 case where Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were found to have blurred the lines between original work and copyright infringement and ordered to pay US$7.4m in damages to Marvin Gaye's estate for copying the song 'Let's Get it On'.
If the recording industry concedes the war on music streaming, will its new battles be fought between artists? Following the Blurred Lines case, it seems as though more and more artists will be willing to invest in copyright claims in order to protect their tunes and secure their share of the (still substantial) revenue generated by the industry.
Is this fair? The average Top 40 playlist is not the most diverse aural experience - there are certainly some winning formulas and many artists (understandably) capitalise on this. Furthermore, artists are consumers of music themselves and will therefore be exposed to a range of influences. Some of these may inadvertently, or not so inadvertently, end up in their own melodies, and if this happens then that catchy hook could become a legal liability.
From an artist's perspective, therefore, the post-Blurred Lines world is a dangerous one. From a consumer's perspective... well, it depends on whether you're happy hearing variations on the same Chainsmokers song being pumped out by your radio stations. Forcing artists to craft original works could lead to better works being produced, and a better musical experience for all. However, given that there are only so many melodies in the world, this may not be a reasonable expectation, particularly for those in the pop universe, where formulaic often wins out.
Are songwriters increasingly lazy, or arrogant, or simply incompetent – or are they being unfairly chastised for a warm homage to the music they, and we, grew up with? Is plagiarism itself on the increase or are ambulance-chasing legal teams becoming more aware that many artists will quietly settle out of court to avoid public legal proceedings? And after 70 years of this thing we call pop, are the chances of writing something brand new mathematically fewer?