Blurring Entertainment Lines With Copycats

TV has had its issues over copycat programming for decades -- but few cases go from lawsuit to trial.

Still, consumers might turn on the TV and think: “Here we have another singing competition show” -- which has the obligatory three/four judges who sit opposite the performers and make evaluations. Of course, it may not be just singing -- but wannabe dancers, chefs, fashion designers, hair stylists, and even furniture-makers.

 The problem of two songs sharing similar riffs, melodies, and chord structure has plagued the music business for almost all genres, by many estimations: rock, pop, jazz, classical, as well as ethnically cultural music.

Recently, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, co-writers of the song “Blurred Lines,” were sued for alleged copying of the Marvin Gaye song "Got To Give It Up." Profit from the song was at $16.7 million, along with $10 million in non-publishing profits.



At the trial, the attorney for the Gaye family, Richard Busch, cited evidence from a musicologist saying: “There are only two bars in the entirety of 'Blurred Lines' in which an element of 'Got To Give It Up' does not appear.”

So that would seem fairly close. No?

It’s certainly hard to compare copying TV show with that of songs. Yet, for many, the real issue is why so much entertainment does in fact look the same.

Three years ago CBS filed a suit claiming that ABC’s show “Glass House” was a very close rip-off of “Big Brother,” and trying to stop the network from broadcasting it. The suit was dismissed by a judge, though CBS later won a cash settlement in arbitration. “Glass House” aired 10 summer episodes in 2012, with no second season. Did TV viewers recognize that “Glass House” was a poor substitute for another TV show about young people bickering and trying not to get kicked out of a house?

In TV, however, some copying is more or less expected. Executives might say:  “We need a medical drama” or “We need a singing competition show.” The arguments then lie with specifics: “We need a medical drama like ‘Grey’s Anatomy. And we want similar characters.”

For advertisers, this isn’t really an issue. When attaching their brands to any content, it only matters if they can convert entertainment consumers into buyers of their products.

For consumers, however, the blur of entertainment may always feel as if someone is just making a copy.

1 comment about "Blurring Entertainment Lines With Copycats".
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  1. Alistair Kelman from Cachebox TV Ltd, March 9, 2015 at 3:27 p.m.

    Some years ago I reviewed the practitioner's law book called Music and Copyright by Ronald S.Rosen
    # ISBN: 978-0195338362 £107.00 $185.00
    # Paperback: 624 pages
    # Publisher: OUP USA (6 Nov 2008)
    Mr Rosen was the attorney for the composer John Williams who was sued for allegedly copying a phrase which he used in the score for the movie “E.T. The Extraterresterial”. After four years of litigation the dispute over a commonplace musical phrase ended successfully for Mr Williams and Mr Rosen.
    My one criticism of the otherwise excellent law book was its use of musical notation. I said in my review "Understanding a music copyright case without being able to hear the actual music does not work well. I would like to see Rosen make a video lecture of parts of his book – possibly as a TED talk – since only then could the non-musical reader gain an understanding of the complexities of bringing and defending musical copyright claims. Put the video on a YouTube, link it to a website selling the book and Rosen will have created a resource for all lawyers and creative people worldwide."
    Subsequently I got a nice note from Mr Rosen explaining that that was what he really had wanted to do but his publishers stopped him for fear that they could all get sued for copyright infringement (!)

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