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Illustration by Lynn S. Schwebach of Inspiration

by Lynn S. Schwebach

The recent “Blurred Lines” copyright infringement case offers insights into the never-ending debate on how to separate artistic inspiration from stealing.

A Los Angeles federal court ruled in March 2015 that the song “Blurred Lines” copied Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.” The suit ordered Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to pay $7.3 million to the Gaye estate.

Pharrell Williams warned the ruling could have a chilling effect on creativity. “The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else,” Williams told the Financial Times.

Other artists have spoken out as well, again forcing those in the arts to ask how a mind derives inspiration and then morphs it into something entirely original.

Deriving Inspiration

Singer-songwriter Lincoln Greenhaw said, “I think that as a songwriter, you have to try and make it new—as Ezra Pound charged.”

Greenhaw refers to popular statements by the poet, such as: “Any work of art which is not a beginning, an invention, a discovery is of little worth. The very name Troubadour means a ‘finder,’ one who discovers.”

However truly stumbling on the “new” might be a doomed endeavor and artists often fail, said Greenhaw, a member of the band The Aquatic Lights. Yet “we fail honestly.”

Greenhaw’s creative process involves playing a “new” song for a colleague. If that person likes it, you expand on it. However if that person or anyone else thinks it sounds like another song, he “abandons it immediately.”

Wasteland Hop guitarist Nick Scheidies said that all artists “borrow from the songs of artists that have influenced and inspired them, consciously or not. Creativity works by bringing together existing elements in novel ways.”

This is why, Schiedies said, that some great composers claim that they haven’t written their songs but discovered them.

Schiedies said nobody would mistake “Blurred Lines” for the Gaye original, and yet “the groove is so similar you have to wonder if the producer or artist pinpointed “Got to Give It Up” and tried to emulate the groove exactly.”

A Fair Ruling(?)

If that’s the case, then Schiedes thinks the ruling was fair.

Valerie Lovely is an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. She is an attorney and a musician, and she teaches classes in music business and administration. She said, as a musician, she doesn’t think this case will affect the creativity of today’s musicians.

As for her attorney “side,” however, she thinks it’s still to early to know how it will affect the music business. She believes the main issue in this case concerned the composition of the piece—not the sound recording.

In other words, what’s written on the sheet music of “Blurred Lines” shouldn’t emulate what’s on the sheet music of “Got to Give It Up.” This differs from comparing the sound recordings of the two songs, which many concede do have obvious similarities.

For now, a safe rule of thumb, she said, is if an artist is “borrowing” a bit too closely from another artist—to the point where many people hear the similarities—the safest path is to get permission.

Copy Thought Not Style

In Austin Kleon’s book, “Steal Like An Artist,” (yes, that’s really the title) Kleon advises artists to steal, but you don’t steal style, “steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”

Perhaps the best advice on the topic is given by T. S. Eliot, who said: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make into something better, or at least something different. The good poet wields his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn.”

Inspiration, what he and other creative thinkers might be trying to say, should remain influence not plagiarism.