Writer-Shaming, Part 2: The Legal Problems of Songwriting, Sampling, and Influence


Beyoncé  and all of the writers credited on Lemonade (Image credit: thanassis79)

Last week, I briefly mentioned Meek Mill’s “Wanna Know”, a contender for worst diss song of all time, in my discussion of ghostwriting. To recap, “Wanna Know”, directed at Meek’s fellow rapper/perpetual friendzone occupant Drake, makes a straightforward argument: that Drake’s use of ghostwriters is immoral because he isn’t using his own words to tell his story. Unfortunately, the song didn’t vibe well with listeners. Not only was Drake more or less unanimously crowned the winner of the beef, but Meek Mill removed the song from his Soundcloud page only a few days after its release, stating in an Instagram comment, “I don’t feel like I gotta try to prove myself”. Although it came too little too late, it seemed like Meek had grown from his childish encounter with Drake and was deciding to move on to more important things.

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What actually happened behind the scenes was that professional wrestling promoter/occasional film producer WWE quickly heard about Meek Mill’s song, and wasn’t too happy with it. And not in the same way that most of Meek’s fans were. See, “Wanna Know” features a sample of the famous entrance theme used by wrestler The Undertaker. The problem is, Meek (and the song’s producer, Jahlil Beats) didn’t actually ask the WWE if it was alright to use the Undertaker theme in their song.

So Meek Mill made a song criticizing Drake for using someone else’s lyrics… but used somebody else’s song to make it. The irony is crippling.

True to their reputation for having wrestlers chokeslam defenseless people, the WWE wasted no time sending a cease-and-desist letter to the hapless Meek, which means all that stuff about turning over a new leaf was really just so Meek could avoid a lawsuit. Even as I’m writing this a year after the fact, Meek Mill still has a vendetta against Drake. But just like the rest of the Internet, I don’t really care about Meek’s feelings; I really just want to talk about why he got in trouble with the WWE – sampling.

Sampling (using a piece of an existing song to create your own) has been a troubling issue for hip hop musicians since the landmark 1991 copyright case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. V. Warner Bros. Records Inc. The highly-controversial court ruling made sampling illegal unless the artist “cleared” the sample with the original artist, which includes contacting the person in possession of the song rights and agreeing on a payment of a percentage of the song’s royalties. Although some artists are happy to allow their music to be sampled, more often this means that the performing artist, the songwriters, and the label all receive a piece of the profits that the song yields.

Needless to say, this means trying to clear a sample is harder than trying to decipher Young Thug’s lyrics, and probably more expensive. Artists have rallied against strict laws about sampling for years, including St. John’s University graduate/one-time Queens College performer J. Cole, who delivered a short rant about the frustration of clearing samples on his 2014 song “Note to Self (Outro)”. If J. Cole, who has sold more than four million albums in the past five years, is complaining about samples, then imagine what artists with nowhere near the amount of money or connections as Cole are feeling.

A common method of avoiding sample licensing is called “interpolation”, which is basically performing the song you want to sample on your own (or paying someone else to do it for you) and then just including that performance in the song you’re making. Interpolation is an effective loophole that only requires artists to pay the interpolated song’s writers, since the actual performance nor the recorded copy (known as the “master”) of the song are being used, so the music label and performer aren’t entitled to anything. In other words, it’s a great way to screw a lot of people out of a lot of money. Kanye West’s 2004 hit “All Falls Down” is a notable example that uses the same lyrics and melody as a portion of Lauryn Hill’s song “Mystery of Iniquity”, but West employed a new singer, Syleena Johnson, to sing it. Consequently, Hill is still credited as a co-writer on the track, even though she wasn’t actually in the studio making it.

The problem with interpolation is that it also leaves songs that may not be obviously borrowing from another song open to attack, through the notion of conscious or unconscious influence. If somebody with the legal rights to a piece of music thinks a musician might have interpolated it (even if they didn’t actually sample the song in question)  – guess what? Someone’s getting sued.

Blurred Lines Lawsuit - Jury Orders Pharrell and Thicke Pay $7.3m

Image credit: The Daily English Show

In 2013, the Marvin Gaye estate sued Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I. for their fucking annoying massive hit song “Blurred Lines”, which Thicke publicly stated was inspired by Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up”. During an embarrassing and lengthy trial where he revealed that he was “high on Vicodin and alcohol” when the song was made, Thicke admitted that he wrote almost none of the song and even tried to blame Williams for the song’s similarity to Gaye’s. Real friends. To Thicke’s dismay, the 2015 ruling in favor of Gaye’s estate’s held both of them responsible for copyright infringement and forced them to pay an unprecedented $7.4 million in damages. T.I. avoided paying because his only contribution was a rap verse, and, as far as we know, Gaye didn’t write it (although maybe Quentin Miller did?).

panda-meme-4However, there weren’t any technically similar elements between the songs, and many have criticized the court’s ruling for being based on influence rather than any proven theft (plus people were just tired of “Blurred Lines”). In other words, the song is like Desiigner’s “Panda” – it sounds like Future, but it’s not actually stealing any of his copyrighted music (and if it did, you can bet Future would have already sued for a piece of those numbers). The dangerous precedent the ruling sets for what constitutes copyright infringement motivated Thicke and Williams to file an appeal this August, which was backed by more than two-hundred fellow musicians who agreed that inspiration doesn’t constitute theft. Granted, maybe they’re just covering their own asses.

Still, the case has already proven to be scaring artists into taking the safe route. Boots, a producer on Beyoncé ’s recent album Lemonade, answered some fans’ confusion as to why members of the Baltimore experimental band Animal Collective were credited as songwriters on Bey’s song “6 Inch”, clarifying that the track had an “accidental” lyrical similarity to the Animal Collective song “My Girls”. Here’s the allegedly similar lyrics:

Beyoncé : “She too smart to crave material things”

Animal Collective: “I don’t mean / To seem like I care about / Material things”

If you’re like me and you’d actually heard “My Girls” (which is six blissful minutes of synthpop) before “6 Inch”, you not only have the proud distinction of liking something before Beyoncé  made it cool, but you probably also didn’t notice any similarity between the songs. The melodies are completely different, and the small lyrical influence seems coincidental at best. And come on, Beyoncé  would never steal from another artist, right?

Beyoncé Accused Of Stealing Another Artist’s Video For “Hold Up”

But even if Bey has done a terrible job of covering her tracks in the past, it’s still somewhat surprising that she went to the trouble of clearing such a dubious likeness, crediting three additional people on “6 Inch” for a single line, but it seems like a careful move in the wake of the “Blurred Lines” decision. It’s easier for a massive artist like Beyoncé  to cover her bases rather than risk a lawsuit further down the line, and it speaks to the possible dangers ahead if further litigation restricts what artists can sample, interpolate, or draw influence from. Whether you’re Queen Bey, J. Cole, or Meek Mill, you’re never above copyright.

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