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.

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.