It happens quite often that certain clients or creative directors are nailed to the idea of using that particular song to be synced to client’s tv ad. Then once they acknowledge that the cost to clear the sync rights on it is over one million dollars and they realize that the client cannot afford it or is not willing to spend such an amount of money, they need to act quickly to find a less famous (and consequently less expensive) song; in alternative they can contact musicians and publishers asking for a song with this kind of atmosphere, evoking that emotion … ending the brief with the fateful phrase: a music “that sounds a like” the famous (and expensive) song beloved by their client. We can name it “the sound-a-like strategy”.
As a music publisher I have received this request very often and each time an image lights up into my brain as a warning alarm: it is the newspaper title: “Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to pay $7.4m to Marvin Gaye’s family“.
In 2013 Marvin Gaye’s family accused Pharrel Williams and Robin Thicke of “deliberately undertaking” to infringe copyright, adding that while the pair “certainly have a right to be inspired by “Got to Give It Up” they did not have the right to use it without permission as a blueprint”. A federal court in Los Angeles found that “Blurred Lines” had copied not the melody or chords of Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up,” but the 1977 hit’s sound and feel.
It is not my intention to talk about the Williams / Thicke vs. Gaye’s family case and all the implications it can have for future plagiarism cases but just to remind that there are not rules such as a limited number of notes per bar for discriminating what is a copyright infringement and what is not. The ultimate test is how a new track sounds if compared to a pre-existing one. Then, if we ask a musician to compose a “sound-a-like” song he will probably feel motivated and legitimated to write a so called “tribute” rather than an original composition and we, as users, will most likely end up being liable for copyright infringement.