We always hear stories about how copyright has to be protected to "protect the artists," and yet time and time again we learn that some of the biggest name artists will often copy directly from each other without credit or payment. It's the way music is made. In James Boyle's excellent book, The Public Domain
, there's a really fantastic chapter
giving plenty of examples of this in practice. However, Rob Hyndman
recently pointed us to another such example, found via Wikipedia, but backed up via its sources of course. The discussion? It's about where Michael Jackson's famous song Billie Jean
came from. Turns out, Jackson himself admitted to copying the bass line directly from a Hall and Oates song:
According to Daryl Hall, when Jackson was recording “We Are the World,” Jackson approached him and admitted to lifting the bass line for "Billie Jean" from a Hall and Oates song (apparently referring to Hall’s "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)" from the 1981 album Private Eyes): "Michael Jackson once said directly to me that he hoped I didn't mind that he copped that groove."
Of course, the really amusing part? Hall responded to Jackson... by telling him he had done the same thing himself to get that bassline in the first place! "It's something we all do," Hall later explained.
Indeed. And yet, under today's laws, it's still considered infringement, and we still hear people looking down on "remixing" or people who create works in this manner, by building on the works of others. And yet, this is one of the most successful pop songs of all time. And the bass was a big part of that. Elsewhere in the Wikipedia article, there's a discussion of how the producer of the song, Quincy Jones, hated the song, and specifically the bass line. Yet Jackson insisted that the bass line was the key to the song, and the two of them fought over it until Jackson won. And the bassline was completely copied.
It's stories like this that make us wonder how people can say with a straight face that copying something can't help to create something new.