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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Copyright law went wrong

As you may have heard, Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams lost their copyright lawsuit on the song “Blurred Lines,” with the court ruling that it was too similar to Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.” At first, one might feel a sense of schadenfreude that the crap-mongers of this creepy rape-anthem are getting their just desserts.

But this is dangerous for so very many reasons. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation has noted, the similarities alleged between the two songs are incredibly general and sets a dangerous precedent.

Many artists use pastiche, which is the “crime” Thicke and Pharell are accused of, all the time. Weird Al, for instance, uses it in a lot on his non-parody songs, like how “Ringtone” was a pastiche of Queen’s style, and “Dare To Be Stupid” has been called “The best Devo song ever made.”

Traditionally, copyright is imagined as not being based on a specific idea, which “feel” and “tone” presumably falls under, but rather how that idea is expressed, i.e. the specific words and melody of a song. This ruling takes a giant steaming dump on that idea.

Imagine if this criteria were expanded to cinema: How many films would be nixed due to being knockoffs of “Alien” or “The Terminator” or “Star Wars”?

It’s all part of a larger problem of the way in which the entertainment industry is destroying people’s ability to use material under copyright law, including the ongoing rollback of the public domain.

The public domain has been pushed back many times, most recently under the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extention Act and the Copyright Act of 1976. Because of these acts, nothing has gone into the public domain since 2010.

If the terms of copyright were at their pre ’76 levels, “Superman,” “The Cat In The Hat,” “Atlas Shrugged,” Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse would be in public domain, free for anybody to use and expand upon. Instead, we see each of these bought and owned by individual companies.

Much of this rollback has been due to greedy IP holders trying to keep their hold on their intellectual property, and especially Disney trying to keep a hold on Mickey & friends, which is ironic due to Disney’s own heavy use of the public domain for its works. This is perhaps why Disney should stop hiring sociopaths for lawyers who can only get an erection by destroying the creative commons, but I digress.

All of these efforts will destroy the ability of people to build on works to make their own creative masterpieces. So, what can we do?

There’s a bill going through Congress called the “Public Domain Enhancement Act” that would make it easier for orphan works (copyrighted materials whose original owners have died) to fall into the public domain.

And, of course, there’s always the possibility of challenging the “Blurred Lines” precedent in the courts, so keep an eye out on that.

We have to do something about the fencing-off of creativity via copyright. Otherwise, the future of the ability of creators to build on others will be a boot stamping on a human dream forever.


Tom Johnson is a film & television studies junior. Follow him on Twitter.

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