Opinion: what's behind the growth in high-profile copyright infringement cases involving acts from Lady Gaga to Pharrell Williams?

In recent years, there has been a growing preponderance of high-profile, questionable copyright infringement legal actions in popular music. The most recent example, which as of yet remains only a threat of a lawsuit, concerns the verse section from Lady Gaga's "Shallow", which is purported to have copied the verse of a song by a singer-songwriter named Steve Ronsen. The song in question, "Almost", initially had under 300 plays on Soundcloud and it now has in excess of 300,000 as a result of recent attention. 

While the two examples are undeniably similar, the problem is not the similarity, but rather their universality. The chord progression in question is so fundamental and ubiquitous across multiple genres of music that to copyright it would be akin to copyrighting basic grammar. This is worth mentioning since only a melody could be copyrighted in the past.

Lady Gaga "Shallow"

But a number of recent cases have effectively thrown this rational limitation out the window. For example, the "Blurred Lines" case saw the Marvin Gaye estate successfully suing Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke ostensibly on the preposterous basis of the theft of a "musical style". This is a parameter which essentially could enable every piece of music ever created to become the subject of a lawsuit. 

Leaving the chords aside in the case of Lady Gaga and "Shallow", the melodic idea in question does not corroborate Ronsen’s suggestions of infringement. Ronsen’s melody is extremely simple and forms the upper voice of the chord progression, without any embellishment or unique, unpredictable features either in terms of pitch or rhythm. Other than the three notes that are identical to the melody of "Almost", Lady Gaga’s melody is slightly more interesting and rhythmically varied.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, CBS News' correspondent Steve Futterman discusses the outcome of the "Blurred Lines" case

While the second half of Ronsen’s melody differs from Gaga’s offering slightly, it is in fact identical to another work, namely Elvis Presley’s 1961 hit "Can’t Help Falling in Love", written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss. Given the simplicity of the materials, however, it almost feels needless to point this out.

It also is merely one example of a potentially vast number of other such inevitable similarities. For example, the identical three-note phrase of Ronsen and Gaga’s songs can be found in works such as the opening of the fourth movement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony or the "Knee Play" movements of Philip Glass’ "Einstein on the Beach" opera. The second half of the melodic phrase also strongly resembles the "don’t know why" refrain from Slade’s "Cum On Feel The Noize".

Slade "Cum On Feel the Noize"

Nonetheless, Ronsen’s claims remain only a threat (and by all appearances a publicity stunt) for the time being. More immediately worrying are the successful cases taken against Katy Perry by Christian rapper Flame for her supposed infringement of his song "Joyful Noise" with her 2013 hit "Dark Horse" and the above-mentioned "Blurred Lines" case.

What was most egregious about the latter case is the lack of similarity of the fundamental musical materials of the two tracks other than the rhythm. Neither the melody nor the chord progression of "Blurred Lines" bore any lawsuit-worthy resemblance to Gaye’s vastly superior "Got to Give It Up". The song was in fact created as a deliberate homage to "Got to Give It Up", a fact most evident in the beat and instrumentation.

Marvin Gaye "Got To Give It Up"

In the case of "Dark Horse", it was not the song’s melody or harmony that gave rise to the lawsuit, but rather a plain, metronomic synthesiser riff and a generic trap-style beat. YouTuber Adam Neely analysed everything wrong with this case in a recent video. The most unsettling part of this is Neely’s discussion about the testimony of a renowned musicologist on behalf of the claimant, which he considers to be highly questionable and self-contradictory. 

Aside from opportunism on the part of claimants, it is worth considering whether there is another factor to this issue. A 2012 paper by a team of Spanish researchers demonstrated that pop music has become quantifiably less diverse in terms of melody, timbre and volume. While harmony was not directly addressed in the study, it is undeniable that the harmonic range of popular music has becoming increasingly limited in recent years (indeed the narrowing melodic content indicated by the study implies this). 

This is not to say that a paucity of harmonic changes precludes musical innovation. Sometimes, the opposite is the case, as with minimalism or modal jazz. The Beatles were capable of producing strikingly original songs with little or no harmonic movement at all such as "Eleanor Rigby", "Tomorrow Never Knows", "Rain" and others. They were also, however, capable of crafting extremely satisfying and original harmony such as "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds", "Penny Lane", "Because" and numerous others.

The Beatles "Tomorrow Never Knows"

In an interview published the year before his death, Prince talked about the state of modern pop music. "It’s a bad time for music in general", he said. "There’s not a lot of pop music in the mainstream that makes you feel scared, that makes you wonder what’s happening."

While the fault of questionable copyright claims lies squarely with those pursuing them, as well as justice systems that enable them, it is nonetheless worth wondering if a little more adventurousness and originality on the part of pop musicians might help to ameliorate the situation while simultaneously producing better, more interesting music – the result would be a win for all.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ