Michael Bolton vs The Isley Brothers

In Siva Vaidhyanathan’s piece Open Source as a Culture/Culture as an Open Source, he states, “the advantages and threats of open-source models have revealed serious faults in the chief regulatory system that governs global flows of culture and information: copyright” (24). He goes on to state that, before all media was regulated by copyright, the human race naturally worked under the theory of open source; and it worked. Since the introduction and domination of the proprietary model throughout the 1980s, handling the way that information has been distributed and altered has not been the same. The proprietary model supports the idea that the pieces of work, whether referring to a song or writing, should belong solely to the creator and any use of it would be stealing or violating copyright laws. The Proprietary model has twisted copyright so far from its origin, making it extremely difficult for modern day artists and writers to create something without having to worry about violating copyright laws. This was a problem that Michael Bolton encountered back in the 1990s. He released a song titled “Love is a Wonderful Thing.” The issue at hand wass that an R&B group that goes by the name of The Isley Brothers released a song with the same title and vaguely similar lyrics quite some time before. Many people are wondering as to whether or not Bolton should actually have been punished for stealing the work of The Isley Brothers. On a bigger scale, many are wondering if the modern copyright laws are overstepping their boundaries or if the reversion to the open source approach would yield a more appropriate solution for such copyright debacles.

Michael Bolton, a widely known soul musician, experienced his greatest popularity throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Before producing his own original work, Michael Bolton received most of his fame from recording covers of older R&B, which stands for Rhythm and Blues, hits such as “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding and “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green. The Isley Brothers are an R&B group consisting of three brothers, O’Kelly Isley, Rudolph Isley, and Ronald Isley. They have produced many hits, including “Twist & Shout” and “It’s Your Thing.” They started making music in the late 1950s and have continued to make music to this day. Michael Bolton and the Isley Brothers had no connection until February 24th of 1992 when The Isley Brothers filed a lawsuit accusing Michael Bolton of copyright infringement pertaining to his song “Love is a Wonderful Thing.” Twenty-six years earlier, the Isley Brothers had released a song by the name of “Love is a Wonderful Thing” as well, and this is the pretext under which the lawsuit arose.

Listening to the two songs consecutively, one would note similarities in the tempo as well as slight similarities in the lyrics. In an article released by Billboard Magazine, whose headquarters are located in New York City and are credited for the highly revered music charts, Gail Mitchell states that “the original trial jury determined there were five instances in which the Bolton/Goldmark song plagiarized the Isleys’ tune (Billboard).” In an interview with Valerie Smaldone for 92Y, a cultural institution and community center located in New York City, Michael Bolton claims that he had never heard the song which leaves no possibility that he could have stolen content from The Isley Brother’s “Love is a Wonderful Thing.” In the interview with Smaldone, Michael Bolton states “it was so minimally disseminated that you would’ve had to live in Philadelphia or four other cities at the time it was being promoted.” Bolton goes on to say “I lived in New Haven and Andy Goldmark, my cowriter, lived in New Canaan, and we could have never heard the song.” Earlier on in the interview, Bolton states that he was only thirteen years old at the time, which further solidifies his alibi. Although Michael Bolton had a solid defense against the accusations of copyright infringement of The Isley Brothers, Bolton and his record company, Sony, were charged a heavy $5.4 million, which is the most money ever involved in a music plagiarism case according to record of the lawsuit. Ronald Isley mentioned that he tried to reach an agreement with Michael Bolton but, due to Bolton refusing to comply, the suit was taken all the way to court (Billboard).

Although Michael Bolton claims to not have heard The Isley Brother’s “Love is a Wonderful Thing” before releasing his version in the early 1990s, what would have happened if he had? The chances that two artists would make a song that shares a majority of characteristics is slim but that is not even the case with Michael Bolton. His song is essentially a completely different song that shares the same title. In Michael Bolton’s interview with Valerie Smaldone for 92Y, he mentions that there were over one hundred and fifty-five other songs with the title “Love is a Wonderful Thing” and none of the artists of those other identically labeled songs were bothered by a lawsuit. This leads one to question how affective and fair the proprietary model is. Siva Vaidhyanathan defines copyright as “a limited monopoly, granted by the state, meant to foster creativity by generating a system of presumed incentives”(Sound, 29). In this case the “presumed incentives” would represent monetary incentives for owning and copyrighting your certain piece of work. Does this system actually foster creativity or does it do a better job of stifling creativity? In this case, monetary incentives are working to stifle the creativity of Michael Bolton. It has given artists, like The Isley Brothers, a strong sense of entitlement. They feel as if they should hold complete ownership of their own work and have the right to eradicate work that is even slightly similar to theirs. If we continue to limit creativity in this fashion, it will eventually become nearly impossible for artists to release work without the constant fear of crossing the boundaries of copyright.

On one hand, the proprietary model limits the ability of the writer or artist to steal work from another creator, which forces the writer or artist to come up with his own completely new ideas. Because we live in a world where there is such a high volume of and easy access to data, that is often very difficult to do. On the other hand, the open source model allows creators to use ideas of other artists to produce their end product, whether it is a song, painting, or literary article. The creator has the option to build upon, edit, or customize the ideas that have already been presented in order to make an idea of their own. A classic idiom states “there is no reason to reinvent the wheel.” Similarly, hy would you need to create a completely new piece when your ideas already exist, just not exactly fine-tuned to your likings? This is how mankind has always worked; they have expanded upon ideas of minds before them to create innovations, which have brought our society to where it is today.

Michael Bolton should not have been penalized for copyright infringement of The Isley Brother’s “Love is a Wonderful Thing.” As Daphne Keller states in Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, “According to the Constitution, copyright law grants limited rights to authors in order to ‘Promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts.’ The point is to create the economic and legal conditions within which science, learning, and culture can flourish. In pursuit of this goal, a copyright holder is generally ganted the right to stop other people form selling copies of her work or derivative works based on it” (137). Although there is good proof that he could not have heard their version, there is also no doubt that he may have heard the song at one point and subconsciously took inspiration from it. Because of this, I do not think that Michael Bolton owes the Isley Brothers $5.4 million. Whether or not Michael Bolton heard The Isley Brother’s “Love is a Wonderful Thing” should not be of huge importance so long as his song is not a copy of The Isley Brother’s version. “Throughout history,” Daphne Keller observes, “people have taken inspiration from others to create. New art builds on old art. We hear music, process it, reconfigure it, and create something derivative” (Sound, 135). It is nearly impossible to create something without one single bit of unoriginal thought. Just by living and interacting with others, it is impossible to ignore inspiration.

Given Michael Bolton’s history as an R&B fan and a cover artist, it is not surprising that he would take inspiration from the Isley Brothers, although it was most likely unintentionally. Bolton was taking advantage of the classic way of building upon other pieces, kown as open source. The fact that he was convicted of copyright infringement really makes one question how effectively the current method of copyright protection and prosecution is working and whether or not we will be able to advance as an artistic culture if our actions are monitored so severely.

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