Lawsuits of stealing samples without paying or giving credit bring out the worst in people. This happens often enough that I occasionally write about the problem , but it is worth discussing again because the song’s situation is particularly ironic. Justin Beiber  collaborated with Skrillex, most famous for being the only dubstep artist most people know of except perhaps for Taylor Swift (in her song “I Knew You Were Trouble”) on the song “Sorry.” The song had about ten songwriters and four producers, as is common for many contemporary artists (or, to be more precise, it claims five songwriters and two producers ), and as is not surprising, it is involved in a messy lawsuit from an artist I had never heard of before, but which makes a great deal of sense. The story is a familiar one: an unknown singer-songwriter releases a tune that achieves some modest exposure, and part of it happens to catch with a fellow songwriter, who thinks of the song’s hook as being worthwhile but either deliberately or unconsciously does not think about it, even perhaps thinking that it was an original idea.
It is not clear whether the borrowing, for it appears that enough was borrowed, often enough in the song, that there should be sample credit given, which is going to cost a lot of money. I know from my own memories that as someone who writes a fair bit of poetry that I have unconsciously sampled songs without realizing that they were already done, because I had heard the song and half-forgotten it, except that its tune and hook stayed with me and came through in my own songwriting. For example, one time in a barber shop I heard the song “Sentimental Lady” by Bob Welch playing, and then proceeded to write a song about a sentimental lady, so sentimental she had once hired people to kill me because she disliked my poetry, but who is since happily married with a couple of adorable children, using the same chorus melody because the hook had done its job without leading to a remembrance of where the hook came from. Had I been someone like Justin Beiber, it would have been possible to record the song and release it without anyone being the wiser as to where it came from, and it would have been embarrassing to have been sued over stealing a riff from a 1970’s soft rock anthem. At least I would have been embarrassed at such a lawsuit, and would likely have wanted to settle out of court as soon as possible, because the lawsuit would have been just.
What makes this kind of situation bring out the worst in people is somewhat complicated because of the many ways this happens. For one, obscure singer-songwriters who find their hooks appropriated by bigger and better-produced acts and that become massively popular tend to sound very greedy for money and attention when they sue over unrecognized samples. Popular singers and songwriters and producers who, whether consciously or unconsciously sample from obscure artists without giving them proper songwriting/sample credit and shares of the royalties look like they are exploiting their more obscure brethren in the music industry, because they are. Then people who are fans of both sides chime in, and there is a lot of gossip and negative press, and then people like me who have no particular business in the matter chime in and give our two cents worth and everything tends to spiral out of control. What should have been dealt with by responding to an initial letter pointing out the sample that had been made and making a change in songwriter/sample credits accordingly ends up becoming a massive lawsuit where millions of dollars are at stake and where bad blood is likely to make it difficult for some people to work together anymore. Theft has consequences, and in the music world, there is a rising degree of willingness on the part of singer-songwriters to sue when their music has been sampled without recognition, especially if those artists are obscure. Sometimes the results are unfavorable, but often large amounts of money change hands and reputations are deeply harmed.
It seems unlikely that there will be a positive outcome in this for Justin Beiber and Skrillex. The obscure singer-songwriter who sued them has some publicity, and may find herself with a few million dollars in damages if the lawsuit goes all the way to judgment. I imagine Justin Beiber and Skrillex and the other respondents to the lawsuit are familiar with the threat of Spirit’s lawsuit over “Stairway To Heaven,” or the fates of Sam Smith and Robin Thicke after having dealt with successful lawsuits about the hooks to their most popular hits. They know how many millions of dollars are at stake here, and they also likely know that a lot of lawyers are going to get a lot wealthier the longer this goes on. The video blog answers and the dissing of fanboys is mainly posturing and posing, as judges and juries have not been sympathetic when singer-songwriters have their material stolen, when the voices of people appear on tracks when they receive no credit or royalties for it, and when people who are exposed for their theft decide that the best defense is a good offense. No one likes a bully. Here’s hoping for a speedy settlement and a resumption of goodwill, so that people can avoid having to spend time on legal defenses and argumentation and more time making music that other people want to hear, which is what they are best at anyway.
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