Burt Bacharach calls for clarity over plagiarism laws

Burt Bacharach
Burt Bacharach

Ideas that remain in your head cannot be protected. Image by Eddie Janssens

Veteran songwriter says artists are getting a rough deal when it comes to lawsuits, as there are not enough notes

Over the last few years there has been a flurry of high-profile plagiarism lawsuits filed against artists who are accused of stealing from other songs. Now, singer-songwriter Burt Bacharach wants to see the introduction of a plagiarism panel.

This panel, the singer said, should be made up of “three or four outstanding experts, musicologists” who would judge each case on its own merits. His comments come after seeing “too many bad decisions made” during court cases.

Bacharach is no stranger to plagiarism lawsuits. Someone once unsuccessfully claimed to have written his 1969 Oscar-winner Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head. Although Bacharach acknowledges that “it’s not a perfect science,” he is adamant that changes are required to make laws clearer.

In 2015 Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars were forced to add The Gap Band to the writing credits of their hit song Uptown Funk after it was deemed similar to Oops Up Side Your Head. That same year Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke had to pay Marvin Gaye’s estate £4.8m in damages after US jurors ruled that their song Blurred Lines copied Gaye’s 1977 track Got To Give It Up. And in 2017 Ed Sheeran paid £20m to songwriters Thomas Leonard and Martin Harrington in a copyright infringement claim against his song Photograph.

In each of those cases there are clear similarities to the point where the contested parts are almost identical. But how far would the proposed changes go? There are only 12 musical notes in Western music, and you can’t copyright a note. US copyright law states that the prosecution must prove that the accused has heard the song they are charged with copying. It’s important to write down your music at the time of composing and register the hardcopy with a collection society; ideas that remain in your head cannot be protected.

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