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Published on January 24th, 2013 | by Alan Cross

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The Black Keys Are Playing With Copyright Fire

If you write a song and someone rips you off, you want justice.  If someone lifts pieces of a song you’ve written without permission for their own purposes, you want compensation.  But what if someone just copies your style?  Is that grounds for a lawsuit?

The Black Keys certainly think so.  They believe that their signature style–the sounds and audio aesthetics that make them sound like they do–has been, er, appropriated unlawfully.  

This is the world of “soundalikes.”  Radio and other production libraries along with agencies and music supervisors will often commission a piece of music to sound similar to a well-known song.  The trick is to change the arrangement just enough so that while its legally distinct, it still evokes the memory and/or feeling of the famous song it’s aping.  

This has been going on forever on radio, TV and in movies. And none of this is illegal. The Black Keys would beg to differ.  They believe that a style of playing can be protected in the same way a song can. It’s part of their style which deserves to be protected as much as anything they do from thieves.

The thing that got the BKs all irked up is this spot from Pizza Hut.

They also went after Home Depot and, like the Pizza Hut spot, secured some kind of financial settlement. Not something determined by a court, mind you, so that means there still isn’t any legal precedent for this sort of thing.

This is a crazy weird area of litigation that could have far-reaching implications if the next case–a jury trial against a casino–goes in favour of the band.  Read more at Digital Music News.


About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.



10 Responses to The Black Keys Are Playing With Copyright Fire

  1. Richard says:

    So the black keys sound like bluegrass rock? which has a distinct sound to begin with? are these people fucking retarded or just greedy?

  2. Anand says:

    If I heard that commercial I would instantly think "Black Keys". I can see why they are bothered. With their success I am surprised that there are not many more soundalike bands out there. Imitation is the highest form of flattery…

  3. Tim says:

    So, sue Pizza Hut for ripping off a style that is 100 years old, and then charge The Sheepdogs money to produce singles that sound like The Keys. Sounds like they've got a pretty good business plan going.

  4. iamsuperdan says:

    So an unoriginal band says someone copied the sound that they copied from artists from the 70s?

    Have I got this right?

    So it sounds like you, I would say common sense should prevail here.

    Does that mean Nickelback can sue Theory of A Deadman or any of the thousand other Nickelback clones?

    Can Skrillex sue everyone else getting famous on Dubstep?

    Can Eddie Van Halen sue all the other hair metal guitarists from the late 80s?

    Can Mariah Carey sue Beyonce for copying her schtick?

    Can Sarah Jessica Parker sues horses for stealing her look? Okay, maybe that's a different story altogether.

    Good grief. Get over yourselves Black Keys. Enjoy your fame while you have it. In a year, you'kll be forgotten.

  5. Steve says:

    Reminds me of this story about The Romantics suing Activision over Guitar Hero a few years back. Link to story

    Not sure what ultimately happened with the court case though.

  6. Shawneroo says:

    It seems like they didn't have a problem when they produced the Sheepdogs and Dr. John to sound just like them… They also didn't seem to concerned about sound-a-likes when they blatantly ripped off "Mambo Sun" by T-Rex in their song "Everlasting Light."

    If they are trying to lay claim to the fuzzed out Blues genre, I would say that they are opening themselves up to having to deal with a few of their influences, say about hundreds of years worth or so.

  7. Scott Phillips says:

    The ghosts of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, & John Lee Hooker should all file a class action suit again the Black Keys. Plus, they've never even been the only band doing that style. What if Jack and Meg White want to sue them, or Jon Spencer Blues Explosion come after them, or Band Of Skulls file a suit, how about Death From Above 1979?…Even the the Flat Duo Jets (who the Jack White was inspired by) could file a lawsuit again the Black Keys. Just silly of them.

  8. Akito01 says:

    "Copyright infringement is your best entertainment value." – Negativland

  9. Marc B says:

    This is kind of a grey area… but in this specific case, that Pizza Hut commercial is blatantly trying to trick people into thinking they got "Gold on the Ceiling" in their commercial – I can see why they're pissed. Particularly because it looks like they are encouraging obesity.

  10. Scoot says:

    I can remember Edward Van Halen saying the reason they licensed "Right Now" to Pepsi was that Pepsi Co, pretty much said they'd hire a sound-alike to record a really close version of the song anyway. So, Van Halen decided to take the money and have the real song in the Crystal Pepsi ad instead of the rip-off version. If you believe that explanation.

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