Blurred Lines sounds a lot like a Marvin Gaye song. Photo: Getty
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If you think Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines plagiarises Marvin Gaye, you don't understand songwriting

A jury's view that Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s Blurred Lines copied Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song, Got To Give It Up is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what songwriting is.

Blurred Lines, the much-loathed, much-loved song performed by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, sounds a bit like Got To Give It Up by Marvin Gaye. Anyone with good hearing would agree with that, surely. After all, it’s got a similar tempo, a similar feel, and they both feature a bloke singing in a high voice. The question currently being debated is whether Thicke and Williams owe sufficient debt to the Gaye track to be on the losing end of a court case which concluded yesterday. Having been found guilty of a breach of copyright, they now face a $7.4m bill for damages.

For many people, this is a no-brainer. When they hear the two songs one after the other, blaring out of a laptop speaker, they’ll state categorically that one of them – the one from 2013 – surely couldn’t have existed without the other one, from 1977. And yes, that’s probably the case. After all, the borrowing of sonic palettes is endemic in popular music – indeed, most forms of music. Thicke has frequently cited his love of Gaye’s music in interviews (although, as became clear during the case, it was Williams who actually wrote Blurred Lines). But the view that Blurred Lines plagiarises from Marvin Gaye is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what songwriting is. Let’s be clear: these two songs are fundamentally different. They have different structures, different melodies, different chords. Were it not for the similarity of the sparse arrangement (an offbeat electric piano figure and a cowbell clanking away at 120bpm) the court case wouldn’t even have taken place. 

Yes, the two songs sound similar. But you can’t copyright the sound of something. If the implication is that you now can, there’ll be about 20,000 indie bands from the last 30 years getting extremely nervous that they’re about to hear from the Velvet Underground’s lawyer. George Michael will be getting ready to hand over his house to Earth Wind & Fire. A cataclysmic explosion of litigious activity awaits. Because, based on this ruling, everyone will end up owing money to everyone. 

The judge in the case knew this. He tried to create a level playing field by not allowing Gaye’s track to be played in court alongside Blurred Lines. Only the sheet music, and reconstructions thereof, were permitted as evidence. Lawyers for Gaye’s family had to prove to the jury some kind of link between the two tracks, despite the primary illustration of said link being ruled inadmissable.

A press release from 2013 by Gaye’s family's lawyers repeats one of the initial allegations circulating online, namely that the bassline and the cowbell patterns in Blurred Lines were stolen from Got To Give It UpThis blog post by Joe Bennett does an excellent job of describing why this certainly isn’t the case; yes, Blurred Lines uses a bass, and a cowbell, but the groove is completely different. The only similarities you're left with are the speed of the track, and the “vibe”. But there’s nothing in copyright law about “vibe”.

In the end, the case appears to have hinged on melodic fragments of Blurred Lines that were adjudged to have breached copyright. (It certainly wasn’t the dubious lyrics.) But in this blog post, written before the ruling, Dan Reitz details very nicely why a) no one has done anything wrong, and b) the worrying implications of the ruling should it go against Thicke and Williams.

“The Gayes’ musicologist,” he writes, “has chopped the music up into pieces that are so small that it would fundamentally change the process of songwriting if they won. If three common notes within a single similarly-shaped phrase is all that is needed to successfully sue someone, then the floodgates of litigation are about to swing wide open.”

Countless songs in the popular music canon have way more resemblance to each other than the two featured in this court case, but few people pick up on them, simply because they're styled differently. (Mashup artists have been making hay with this for years.) By styling Blurred Lines in a similar way to Got To Give It Up, Thicke and Williams laid themselves open to incorrect accusations of plagiarism. They tried to use the legal system to point out that “vibe” cannot be copyrighted, that “vibe” cannot be written down, but, incredibly, they contrived to be found guilty. We only have 12 notes in the musical scale, fellow musicians. Be very careful which ones you choose next. Lawyers are getting hungry.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.