Monday, March 16, 2015

'Creative thievery'

For his 1977 “Star Wars” score, “John Williams all but lifted the core idea . . . from the scherzo of Erich Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp minor, written 25 years earlier,” notes Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed. By the reasoning of the court judgment last week that “Blurred Lines,” a song by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, plagiarized Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” would Korngold’s heirs have a claim against Williams?

“Out of this lawsuit, which is essentially a spat by millionaires about money, the court has attempted to regulate the rules of musical composition,” Swed writes. Citing examples of composers “borrowing” the music of others from medieval to modern times, the critic declares: “So-called creative thievery isn’t just the privilege of pop musicians; it is the God-given right of all musicians and the very basis of Western music.”

Swed makes a persuasive case, but probably not one that would prevail in the US legal system.

A savvy composer today is best-advised not to borrow from, or even arguably approximate, any music not in the public domain – i.e., published since 1923.