Don’t know what else to do pic.twitter.com/1uBrXwviTS
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) November 14, 2019
This year has been a big one for music in the courts. In 2019, public legal battles and controversial decisions have shown the very limits of our judicial system—and where the realities of it come into conflict with our conceptions of justice.
Just this week, the feud between Taylor Swift and her former label Big Machine Records, in particular owner Scooter Braun and co-founder Scott Borchetta, was reignited as Swift claimed Braun and Borchetta were blocking her from performing tracks of hers that they owned the rights to at the American Music Awards ceremony. The latter two folded on this after public pressure, and it is currently unclear who is inciting this spat, but it seems like a very weird and off-putting situation all around. In some ways, it feels wrong to think of a large corporation controlling the rights to the thoughts and words of an artist.
Earlier this year, we saw the outcome of the infamous Katy Perry Dark Horse court case. In August, a jury decided unanimously that Dark Horse copied the beat from a 2009 song by Christian rapper Flame. This decision sparked a wave of backlash from music theorists and copyright lawyers worried about how the case redefines what a rip-off is. Many argue Dark Horse was only guilty of copying a chord progression on a similar-sounding synthesizer; surely, no one artist should be able to own a chord progression.
However, this 2019 decision isn’t too surprising; it really just follows in the footsteps of high-profile cases before it. In 2015, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had to pay $5 million to Marvin Gaye’s estate for copying one of his songs’ general vibe. This opened the door for all sorts of copyright copycats claiming ownership over progressions, melodies and sounds.
While these situations are different, they cause unease for the same reason. It’s not easy to place why specifically, but they just don’t feel right. It feels like the creative force behind a project should have control and ownership over that, as it came from their mind. Yes, influence and inspiration exist, and yes, many hands work at songs by pop stars like Taylor Swift. But that can be said of any idea ever. Where should the line be drawn between inspiration and copying, if anywhere? Where should the line be drawn between ownership and creative expression?
We often have this romantic ideal of creative expression being about a person (or people) pouring their heart out into the world and letting it be. But in this muddied media landscape, any sort of romanticism is facile. Since the dawn of record labels, artists have made songs about hating them. Cash rules everything in the music world, just as it does in the legal system.
The bright spot of the rise of internet streaming was the ease of being independent. Artists could more easily be free from cruel record labels. That is why cases like Dark Horse are unsettling. Even with her label’s backing, Katy Perry lost to, in my opinion, lawyers preying on people ignorant of music theory. Now, this may be the precedent for delineating between drawing on and jacking the style of musical ancestors. If an independent artist is sued in a similar way, will they have any recourse?
At the end of the day, lawyers are just trying to do their jobs. It is the way in which we view ownership and intellectual property that needs to change. Art—yes, even Katy Perry’s music—is a reflection and driver of culture. Culture is meant to be shared. By restricting creative freedom, we are shackling our society at large. If we can’t be inspired by even a vibe, how are we supposed to explore aesthetics? If we can’t be secure in performing words we thought of, how can we feel secure in creation at all? The courts are not the ones that should be placing restrictions on creation, and it is a shame that various labels and estates are in pursuit of some extra wealth.
Dangerous precedents are being set about the future of music and creative expression in the United States. Intellectual and monetary capital is being held in higher esteem than artistic freedom. The only way to reverse this is to reconsider how we view art and justice.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of @BigMachine on Twitter
Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.