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Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” Not so Funky Right Now

On October 28, 2016, Bruno Mars and record producer Mark Ronson, among others, were named in a copyright infringement lawsuit by Larry White, and the estates of Grady Wilkins and Lee Peters (among others). In the suit, White and the estates of Wilkins and Peters argue that the song “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson infringe their copyright.

White, Wilkins and Peters were members of the 1980s “electrofunk” band Collage. In 1983, Collage released the song “Young Girls” on the album “Get In Touch.”  “Young Girls” was registered at the US Copyright Office in July 1983. According to the suit, “Young Girls” was one of two successful hits for Collage.

To be successful in a claim of copyright infringement, in addition to ownership of a valid copyright Collage must prove that the infringer (Mars and Ronson) had access to the copyrighted work and that the allegedly infringing work and the copyrighted work are substantially similar.

It is likely that Collage can prove that Mars and/or Ronson had access to the original work. Creation of the work “Uptown Funk” was admittedly influenced by the sound of Minneapolis electrofunk soul from the early 1980s (including Prince, The Gap Band, Collage, etc.).

The question is whether the songs are substantially similar. Collage claims that the copying is blatant and clear, and within the first several seconds “Uptown Funk” can be recognized to have strikingly similar rhythm, harmony, melody, structure, and nature to “Young Girls.”  You be the judge, listen to the songs here: Combined Songs  OR  Young Girls vs. Uptown Funk.

Collage claims that the songwriter credit list on “Uptown Funk” is 11 people long because of elements taken from other songs, but that Collage was left out, cheating them out of royalties. If successful, the potential windfall is significant for the members of Collage as “Uptown Funk” is said to earn $100,000 a week in royalties from Spotify alone, had sold more than six million copies as of July 2016, has had more than one billion views on YouTube, and is performed / broadcast expansively through various channels.

This is not the first time “Uptown Funk” has been the subject of a copyright claim. The Gap Band also contended that the song shared overwhelming similarities to The Gap Band’s “Opps! Upside Your Head.” The Gap Band never formally sued, although the credits to the track “Uptown Funk” grew from 6 to 11, adding members of The Gap Band to the list. The funk group Sequence also threatened, although never sued, Mars and Ronson, arguing that the song copied Sequence’s 1979 song “Funk You Up.” 

There appears to be a recent rash of these cases, namely, suits against music artists who have highly successful songs. The accused musicians often argue that inspiration comes from prior musical works. The debate over protection of the musicians creative work versus permitting inspiration based upon prior musical work is growing. In the “Blurred Lines” case, more than 200 artists asked the Ninth Circuit to toss the $5.4 million verdict against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke because of the concern that the case is dangerous to the music community which shares inspiration from prior musical works. It will be interesting to see how the music industry reacts to the “Uptown Funk” case. 

DISCLAIMERThe information provided is for general informational purposes only. This post is not updated to account for changes in the law and should not be considered tax or legal advice. This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided is for general informational purposes only. This post is not updated to account for changes in the law and should not be considered tax or legal advice. This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

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