With mainstream music and a limited amount of notes in a scale, there are times when two songs can enter a grey area of similarity. While copyright protection is important in protecting the interests of artists globally, the concern now is that legal action is being taken in questionable ways which is forcing simple subjectivity to make a call on what is a copy and what isn't.
My friend recently asked for my opinion on this article (link below), regarding the suing of the music group Men At Work, for their song "Land Down Under", and the associated recent death of the flute player and music legend of the band, Greg Ham.
I remember I studied the case during my law degree under Music Protection and Copyright Law, and the more I delved, the more worrying it became.
So, this song is an absolute hit in the 80ies, people hear the riff on the flute and love it, as it is a tribute to the land of Australia, in context with the song. No one blinks an eye; everyone applauded at how clever it was and a good use for the whole song, paying homage to the children's song "Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree".
Anyway, 20+ years later, when the music industry has become an abomination fuelled by money and less about original passion, where copies and covers are more common than new songs, the 'so called' owner of the Kookaburra song (which is sung by children Australia wide and is considered a warm part of Australian history and culture) hears on a TV Quiz show that this flute riff from the song resembles the Kookaburra song, and decides there is money to be made, and therefore sues Men At Work.
What a blatant, opportunistic attempt at money. Whilst the law is technically correct in this type of case, the law in which that label hinged the case on was created to protect unique bodies of work written by artists from thieving parties destroying the livelihood and potential income from writers. It's not to score a couple of extra dollars by a money hungry music label who happened to noticed that a 20 second piece from a song could get them a hand of success that was earned in the 80ies...
It's just crazy...
Worse still, reading that article linked above, Greg Ham seems like a genuine musician and respected artist. We should be encouraging people like him, and not wrongfully rewarding these opportunistic music labels who seem to only be money hungry corporate machines not really interested in the music itself- they are just using music as a medium for investment. It's a very sad reality.
Especially because in the article, they mention that ever since this legal battle that Ham lost, he fell into a downward depression cycle, eventually ending in his untimely death. Being a music writer myself, I can think of nothing worse than having success in music, only to have it all ripped apart when someone accuses you of theft, based solely on subjectivity alone. I wouldn't want to be remembered for that, and neither did Ham.
What does everyone else think?
*(All of the linked article's credit goes to The Age, Australia for their brilliant article 'How the song turned sour for a 'beautiful man'' by Kylie Northover and Chris Johnston
April 20, 2012)