Now That White Musicians Are Getting Sued For Copyright, Lawyers Say Copyright Needs To Change

from the well-look-at-that dept

You may have noticed a whole bunch of stories about copyright lawsuits lately against famous musicians for having songs that sound just kind of like some other songs. I’d been meaning to write up something talking about all of these stories about how Ed Sheeran is supposedly a “magpie” who “borrows” songs, or about how Dua Lipa was sued not once, but twice, claiming her song “Levitating” infringes on the copyrights of others. Or maybe about how it took Katy Perry eight years to finally have an appeals court note that she didn’t actually infringe on someone else’s copyright.

But then I came across this moderately infuriating Guardian article talking about a few of these cases, and saying that “music industry figures” are claiming that all of these lawsuits show how copyright needs to change because “making music is so different to how it was 50 years ago.”

Hayleigh Bosher, associate dean of intellectual property law at Brunel University, who researches the music industry, said “the law needs to move with the times” as “making music is so different to how it was 50 years ago”.

She added: If Sheeran loses, I imagine we will see even more cases. I don’t think copyright is doing its job properly if songwriters are afraid, that’s stifling creativity.”

And, yes, obviously, copyright law needs to change. These lawsuits are crazy, and we’ve been saying that for a long while now.

But there seems to be something worth noting when the industry is only starting to come around on this because of a bunch of lawsuits targeting famous white songwriters. Because for all the talk about how “music is so different” today, we went through another period of time when a whole bunch of brilliant musicians were sued over copyright infringement… and the response from the industry was a lot more muted.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s there was a flood of sampling lawsuits — almost all of which were targeting hip hop artists. And then you had crazy legal rulings like Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films in which a court announced “get a license or do not sample” and (ridiculously) “we do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.”

But did we see the music industry screaming about how we needed to fix copyright laws back then? Nope. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching Kembrew McLeod’s one hour documentary Copyright Criminals (which, apparently, is now available on YouTube), which does such a great job of showing how copyright basically destroyed a whole genre of hip hop music, but the industry didn’t much care, because hip hop involved mostly artists of color, rather than white pop music.

One great line in that documentary is that after someone says that hip hop artists sampling other musicians is “lazy,” someone notes that it’s not that different than saying a photographer is lazier than a painter because they just snap a picture of what’s already there, rather than painting it from scratch.

The simple fact is that copyright law has gotten in the way of creativity for ages. Creativity has always been based on building on the works of people who came before you. Sometimes it’s homage. Sometimes it’s appropriation. Sometimes it’s just because there are only so many ways certain notes can be played together.

But if people are getting sued over creating new music, and musicians are now afraid of getting sued for making music, then it’s a huge problem. And it was a huge problem in the 80s, 90s, 2000s and today. Perhaps it’s good that more people are realizing how broken the system is and how it’s stifling creativity, but it does seem at least slightly infuriating that it’s only once it’s famous white pop singers are facing the same thing that black hip hop artists faced in the 80s and 90s that its treated as a “real” problem.

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Comments on “Now That White Musicians Are Getting Sued For Copyright, Lawyers Say Copyright Needs To Change”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
cpt kangarooski says:

Well it’s about time at least. Sampling has always obviously been the audio counterpart of collage in the visual arts and perfectly worthy of respect as an art technique. It’s also never been surprising that race has been a factor in decisions against it; old, tight-assed judges should not be making decisions ultimately based on the legitimacy of art.

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James Burkhardt (profile) says:


The author cited a number of white artists affected by the modern trend. None of them were Men at work. The author then compared to a similar trend in the past that primarily affected non-white artists that did not see the same backlash among copyright scholars and lobbyists, to establish the basis for the claims of racism made by the article. That non-white artists are also affected by this trend isn’t surprising, and does not invalidate the claims that race has affected the response to sampling lawsuits.

Nerdelbaum Frink says:

Re: Re:

Did it primarily affect non-white artists? Are you sure that’s a statement of researched fact or is it a statement of clickbait feels?

What sources or evidence is there that non-white artists were the ones primarily affected when the history of copyright lawsuits in music is all over the place? It goes back a lot further than the 80s and 90s, and even during that time, it affected a lot more than hip hop, as one can name countless electronic artists of all genres who’ve been sued for sampling, including myriad “white” artists. Even the link for the supposed flood of lawsuits against hip hop artists has… two examples in it, one of which was the Beastie Boys.

So please, before you go on about invalidating the claims that race has affected the response to sampling lawsuits, why don’t you ask what validates that claim. It’s not that I believe it false, but neither do I believe it true, as Fat Boy Slim, Vanilla Ice, KLF, The Verve, M/A/R/R/S, Chemical Brothers and on and on are all examples of how anyone can be sued over sampling … and yea, you can include myriad non-white artists as well. The point being, white musicians have been consistently and regularly sued over copyright to the point claiming that it’s a new thing is laughably absurd. Even the Beatles were sued over copyright infringement.

The framing this as a race thing reeks of clickbait all over.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I guess you missed the part of the article where it specified that the media and scholar reaction only changed when FAMOUS white artists got sued for long enough. Those white people you are alluding to in the past might have been famous enough to you and me but not famous enough for the industry to take notice or give a crap about. IMHO the point raised in the article still checks out.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Vs

The issue with sampling is you are literally lifting whole parts of something else.
The perception that the issue was race is a simple tag. Most of the hip hop industry was not white. In reality though many prominent and famous whites were also struck in the hip hop suits. As noted the beastie boys, and vanilla ice.
Let’s also not ignore this never really stopped. ICP has been roped into sampling debates. Paint or no paint.

You deflect from the real issue when you focus on perceived concerns. That really are nothing more than coincidental.

It’s to the who now, but the change in industry methodology.
What once was generally limited to a single genre has now become commonplace. And far more public. Pop, rock, rap, metal…. Sampling has gone from one genre to wide spread. From records to you tube to stage shows.

ECA says:

Would love to see

CR take over for perpetuity.
Then we can Show that about 1/2 the music was taken from others before, and money is Owed to those Original creators(many Black).
Then we can look up who Beethoven’s family is, and py them off.
Then we can declare that there is no ANON/Unknown artist and that Any playing of such songs demands a Fund to discover said persons or family.
Then we can go after Disney for Ruining all the Old Children’s stories.

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Anonymous Coward says:

making music is so different to how it was 50 years ago

Of course it is! That is specifically true this year

Pre-1972 Sound Recordings.–The Register of Copyrights is directed to conduct a study on the desirability of and means for bringing sound recordings fixed before February 15, 1972, under federal jurisdiction.

(also see the report.)

Anonymous Coward says:

There’s a video on YouTube showing that Dua lipa song is probably not infringing eg the melody is based on a common rhythm series of notes used in many songs since the 70s , there’s 60,000 songs uploaded every day to soundcloud
Of course some songs will have similar melody’s or some notes in common the copyright laws around music need to change since theres limited range of notes that can be used in a pop song and there’s almost a unlimited amount of new songs being released every year since it costs almost nothing to upload a song to the Web

Anonymous Coward says:

Promote the progress?

So, copyright “promotes progress”… or at least until we’ve made “all the music”, then it’ll stop “new” music since there’s already something made that sounds “similar”, so copyright violation?

Or I guess there’s another way to look at this, copyright is for use until all the progress is made. Then, you don’t create anymore.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:


race baitingverb; always unhyphenated

  1. (derogatory) Dismissal of any criticism of racist policies/racial discrimination as an act that needlessly incites racial tension where none supposedly exists
    • Example: “I first thought Mike was writing [the article] until I saw the race baiting section.”
  2. Making an association between a person or people of a certain racial/ethnic group and someone of the same race/ethnicity who has a low public reputation to smear all people of that race/ethnicity; i.e., the use of dogwhistle politics to incite racial tension
    • Example: “Donald Trump engaged in race baiting when he described Mexicans as ‘rapists’ during his presidential campaign.”

race-baitingadjective; always hyphenated

  1. (derogatory) Descriptor for a person whose criticism of racist policies/racial discrimination needlessly incites racial tension where none supposedly exists
    • Example: “Black people who keep talking about racism are nothing but race-baiting assholes.”
  2. Descriptor for a person who engages in race baiting [See: race baiting, def. 2]
    • Example: “Donald Trump has been a race-baiting asshole ever since he began his presidential campaign.”
Thomas Raven says:

sampling and songwriting are very different

I feel strongly that sampling remains a very different copyright conundrum than the songwriting issue and the two should not be lumped together. When you write a song, no recording exists. It’s a series of chords and melodies and words that may then be recorded/published. Sampling takes material that’s already been recorded and published and it chops it up for use in another work. While it’s highly likely that the same three-chord hook has been used in thousands upon thousands of songs, a recording of Eddie Van Halen playing a unique guitar that he built himself, through a highly modified amp and played in a professionally produced session is a much rarer commodity that IMHO is worthy of protection.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re:

With audio streaming services such as Tidal, Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify, et al., you don’t even have to pay mechanical licenses if you make a cover song; the streaming service takes care of it automatically. I just wish a similar mechanism for sampling in © were available (unless the MMA of 2019 offers one and I’m just ignorant thereof).

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Anonymous Coward says:

Dua Lipa is not white, moron.

In an age where everyone and everything is “racist”, it’s impossible to see the forest for the trees.

Lawsuits on Hip hop artists in the 80’s was the BEGINNING of the issue at hand. Quality artists obtain licensing for their samples. A great example are the Beasties. Perhaps the problem isn’t race, but in fact shady producers.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Rick Beato has a video on youtube where he makes a compelling case that the Dua Lipa song is copied, or at the very least lifted the chorus directly from the song.

Considering its now possible to sue for infringing on the “vibe” of a song, I dont see that case going to trial.

I don’t think its race related, but more profit related. The examples of sampling had far less reach then todays media landscape, plus I would say it was a niche at the time so no threat to profits.

Another thing to bear in mind is that today its far easier for smaller artists to get the message out and then its down to the court of public opinion, again a threat to profits.

While I agree that copyright does need to change, we should be wary in what direction the key stakeholders push. As the guardian article points out songwriting teams are growing larger, so I expect to see labels leaning on the “has the artist heard the original work” more and more.

Link if interested

OGquaker says:

Get your racebait hear

I first heard talking in rhythm * or “Rap” visiting Jamaica in the early 1980’s, by the late 80’s hip hop artists (Blacks) had their own 50k KDAY radio station in LA, Cop Killer and the like was the political coin of their realm. Then, the Manager of KDAY got a letter from the FBI about the nature of their songs. He read the letter over the air 100 times, and a Beverly Hills real estate developer bought the station.%

Soon, the music industry gutted the political content and supported bling & misogynist HipHop:(

At the time, Stevie Wonder’s KJLH-FM was the only Black LA radio, at a time when the Man wouldn’t let you consult your cell phone during working hours.

When i was in college, Black radio came from one place, XERB in Mexico:(

Google: June 1921; Tavis Smiley of Smiley Audio Media, KBLA Talk 1580, is the only Black-Owned and operated talk station in Southern California.

*See Patsy Cline 1960

% Of the 60 available broadcasters in the LA area, KDAY was a LORAN signal, with 50,000 watts directed over the Pacific ocean: useless.

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Juan says:

You know it has nothing to do with race. White artists have been sued for decades, including George Harrison, who was sued for stealing a song from girl group The Chiffons and John Lennon, sued for stealing from Chuck Berry.

Was there an uproar from the industry when Robin Thicke was sued for stealing from Marvin Gaye? No.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:


Was there an uproar from the industry when Robin Thicke was sued for stealing from Marvin Gaye? YES.

FTFY. The uproar was so loud that when Led Zeppelin was sued in a similar case for “Stairway To Heaven”
from a band called Taurus, TechDirt, the Bill Barr Justice dept. and the RIAA all sided with Led Zeppelin.

Ao yeah, when the RIAA sides with TechDirt due to the precedent set by Thicke v. Gaye, that counts as an “uproar” to say the least.

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

” I don’t think copyright is doing its job properly if songwriters are afraid ”

Welcome to how copyright has been weaponized against everyone else on the planet.
There is no creativity anymore, new ideas can’t make it through he gauntlet of lawyers making sure it doesn’t have any tiny fraction of another story involved in it.
Instead they remake the same 7 films, the reboot them, then reimagine them, and its all just crap.

I’m sorry that white folk are being treated how they treated others. I mean imagine had copyright been enforced for every black jazz and blues player that were wholesale ripped off by white artists with much more than a couple samples or chords.

They created this toxic environment & suddenly when someone else decided to use the same tactics its a problem.

I doubt a majority of these claims are valid, but the industry has demanded more & more and gotten it so now they can deal with those vultures coming home to roost.

There are only so many musical notes, only so many ways to arrange them, and there are songs we never managed to hear because it sounded to close & we’d get sued so we can’t release it.

Culture is supposed to build on what came before, instead the fields of creativity lie fallow because the landowners still get paid decades later for what once grew there so why let anything new grow that might take away from their long ago forgotten labor they paid a sharecropper to perform & make them rich while keeping the sharecropper working to get out of a debt thats impossible to ever escape.

Bobvious says:

Re: Documentation

“There are only so many musical notes, only so many ways to arrange them, and there are songs we never managed to hear because it sounded to close & we’d get sued so we can’t release it.”

And not every piece of music or short snippet has been notated or been recorded (written on paper, cave wall, papyrus, hieroglyphics, clay tablet… etc) in a form that we know about or recognise, or even realise is there.

The start of The Sound of Music sounds like something from a Handel piece – unsurprisingly.

“The Courts are Alive to the Sound of Lawsuits” (c)

Watching Eurovision is a drinking game otherwise known as Name Those 300 Pieces You’ve Heard Before.

Kaleberg says:

Race and the vanguard

It’s a race problem because in music black artists tend to be in the vanguard. The vanguard has to run the gauntlet. Look at the Allen Ginsberg trial. He was a white poet who faced criminal charges because he used f–k (except he spelled it out) in a work of poetry. Nowadays, everyone uses f–k (except they spell it out) in novels, songs, billboards and technical manuals. In tech, we know the pioneers because they’re the ones with the arrows in their backs.

If you look at American music since the Civil War, black artists have been front and center, often far in front. They usually put up with all the garbage and die broke. At some point, white people decide to do the same art, get acclaimed as brilliant and make a pile.

OGquaker says:

Re: Time Has Come Today

I talked to two of the remaining brothers in 2016, they said they had lived in the house across the street here. According to a 1965 article in Sing Out! by folk singer Barbara Dane (whom the Chambers Brothers backed onstage and on a mid-1960s Folkways LP, Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers, reissued on CD in 2005 by DBK Works), “The little boys were sometimes asked to sing for well-to-do-whites, and the pay was…an apple. The traditional presentation of that apple was with one bite removed, so that everybody ‘kept their places’ …The family moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s”

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Arijirija says:

copyright law ultra vires anyway

If the reason behind copyright law is to encourage further efforts in the arts and sciences, by allowing the creator to claim some remuneration for the effort expended, then denying such to the artist who has merely copied a phrase (musical, literary or otherwise) or so from another artist is going beyond the law’s intentions and is “ultra vires” – operating in excess of the law’s authority. It is after all how one learns one’s craft – how many musicians learned off their predecessors’ recordings, or from watching them and imitating them.

Or, who didn’t?

As far as I can see, the entire edifice of local music in the US of A, is built on two sources, the European settlers, and their African slaves. Everything that is distinctly American, as opposed to merely a rehash of European traditions, has sprung out of African-American musicians taking those traditions and making them their own. This is merely a contemporary version of it.

So, are these lawyers going to get the hip-hop artists an official apology for the obnoxious and abusive behavior of the copyright infringement industry?

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Anonymous Coward says:

This article was horrifying.
What you wrote was ignorant and a straight up lie.
This is not a racist thing like you are attempting to make it be.
You are what is wrong with this world.
You Lie to create anger and hopefully violence over your imaginary issue.
This is not race related like you’ve made it seem.
Musicians have been getting sued since Copywriting music has existed.

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paulalanlevy (profile) says:

Take your allies where you can find them

Whataboutism is all very well and good, but if we want to get legislation through the Congressional logjam, we need to take our allies where we can find them.

Public Citizen had next to nothing in common with the horrible Ron Paul, but he had this thing about sovereignty so we were able to work with him to oppose trade deals that gave away environmental and safety protections under US law

Robert says:

Not sure your assumption is correct

It may be due to race, but I doubt it.
More likely it was pure greed.
The artists being sued now are valuable to RIAA, while the others really weren’t back then.
And as they’ve shown time and time again, all RIAA really cares about is $$$$$
Never disregard the possible money angle with corporations, especially the extremely greedy ones.

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