The Copyright Conflict

Tom Kirby /
Jan 12, 2018 / Music

On Sunday 7th January, Lana Del Rey tweeted about a lawsuit filed against her by 90s alternative stars Radiohead for copyright infringement on her song ‘Get Free’. The song allegedly has similarities to their hit song ‘Creep’.

She tweeted saying:

“It’s true about the lawsuit. Although I know my song wasn’t inspired by Creep, Radiohead feel it was and want 100% of the publishing – I offered up to 40 over the past few months but they will only accept 100. Their lawyers have been relentless so we will deal with it in court.”

Upon hearing this news, fans and fellow musicians were quick to voice their own opinions on the matter. While it is not yet clear whether the lawsuit has been filed by Radiohead themselves or their lawyers, this situation highlights several issues.

Typically in the music industry, publishers own the writing of songs, while record companies own the recording. Currently, on ‘Get Free,’ the closing track of her album Lust for Life, the songwriters credited are Lana Del Rey and co-writers Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies. While Lana has stated that she wasn’t inspired by ‘Creep,’ the recent trend of a collaboration between songwriters means that many different influences are drawn together to help write a song.

While none of the writers may consciously have been inspired by ‘Creep,’ as Lana stated, a song like ‘Creep,’ that is so well ingrained in pop culture, can leave a subconscious familiarity with its chord progression.

Upon listening to both tracks they are, from a production point of view, complete polar opposites, with very different sonic qualities and soundscapes. ‘Creep’ is the angsty anthem that we know it to be, with dark guitars, gloomy vocals and dull droning drums, all staple pieces of 90s alternative rock. ‘Get Free’ is a soft, ethereal track with swelling synths and vocals drenched in reverb. The only alleged similarity between them is the chord progression in the song’s chorus and a slight melody likeness when Lana sings; “this is my commitment, my modern manifesto” which very loosely sounds like the line “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” on ‘Creep’.

With an increasing estimate of 92 million recorded songs in the world and the majority of pop music using a handful of popular chords and music scales to generate hits, there is a growing risk of more songs and artists falling prey to the ever confusing legal battle over chord progressions.

With ‘Get Free’ being original in both lyrical content and composition Lana’s original offer of 40% publishing rights is actually extremely generous. Radiohead accepting nothing but 100% is opportunistic, greedy and completely money driven. It sends a message to up and coming artists that music is all about money and that the only way to protect your music is to tear down any artists who may share alleged similarities with your art. This case also highlights the ever-increasing hypocrisy that has come from Radiohead in recent years. Their hit song ‘Creep’ was, in fact, sued itself for similarities to the 1974 song ‘The Air That I Breathe’ by The Hollies. Winning an out-of-court battle, writers of the song Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood now exist as credited co-writers on ‘Creep,’ receiving a percentage of royalties. If Radiohead wins their case, Albert and Mike would, in theory, also profit from it. But this isn’t the first time Radiohead have been hypocritical and controversial. Lead singer Thom Yorke has expressed his dislike for the streaming service Spotify on multiple occasions exclaiming that it doesn’t pay new bands enough money. However just a few years ago Radiohead’s “pay what you want” model for their album In Rainbows, although an effective promotional model, allowed fans to essentially have the album for nothing, suggesting that digital music was worthless and thus helped contribute to the devaluation of all digital music.

While ‘Creep’ was a major defining hit for Radiohead, ‘Get Free’ is only a closing album track. If Radiohead were to win, it wouldn’t be a big setback for Lana or her career as the song is not a lead single (these generate the most royalties from radio play). This does beg me to ask the question as to why Radiohead feel they deserve 100%. Maybe it’s simply a way to get people talking about them, an “all publicity is good publicity” stunt. After all, Pablo Honey, the album which ‘Creep’ appears on, turns twenty-five years old this year. Would this kind of publicity help sales of a deluxe, 25th Anniversary special edition album release (if it exists)? Who knows. The slight similarities between the two songs are audible and do entitle them to sue but due to the songs original content having no discernible link to ‘Creep’, they should only receive compensation up to the original 40% that Lana offered.

Disputes like this are common in the industry and have been happening almost since the beginning of music publishing. This case highlights the importance, looking forward, of the need to deal with the ever confusing legal battle over chord progressions. The constant reuse of these progressions continues to breach copyright laws but to begin copyrighting chord progressions would be detrimental to new and up and coming artists, limiting creative freedom, creating a fear of being sued for the slightest similarity to another’s music. Granted this is an extreme dystopian result but the industry cannot continue to ignore the ever growing issues it faces in the 21st Century.

So what do we do? Continue to file lawsuits against each other? Arrange deals with other artists before the release of our music so as to avoid these lawsuits?

These are already happening but copyright laws still become breached. It’s clear that there is not a simple one-fix solution to this problem but it is important now more than ever to bring industry experts together to seriously look at modernising copyright law, a law that was created in a pre-internet/pre-digital age. Maybe then they can begin to help dilute the confusion and come up with a modern model from which to work from in the 21st Century.

Words by Tom Kirby

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