Did Bruno Mars & Mark Ronson Rip Off an ’80s Funk Band?

By: Scarinci Hollenbeck

Years from now, music lovers may regard Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” as one of the biggest hits of the 2010s. According to Rolling Stone, the tune held the No.1 slot on the Billboard 200 for 14 weeks at one point.

bruno mars

However, a recent lawsuit challenged the song’s originality. Pitchfork reported that Larry White, the only living member of the ’80s funk group Collage, along with the estates of deceased members Grady Wilkins and Lee Peters, filed a complaint in the California Central District Court asserting that “Uptown Funk” copies many of the same elements of Collage’s 1983 single “Young Girls.”

Challenging originality 

Mars and Ronson weren’t the only parties named as defendants. The suit names the various record labels and writers involved in the production and commercialization of “Uptown Funk,” including Sony, Warner/Chappell, Universal and Trinidad James, to name a few. The complaint claims that “Uptown Funk” is “an obvious, strikingly and/or substantially similar copy” of the Collage hit, remarking the songwriters for “Uptown Funk” even publicly discussed how their hit was influences by the “Minneapolis electrofunk soul” music of the early ’80s.

Pitchfork provided an excerpt of the complaint, which asserts that “Uptown Funk” copies “the distinct funky specifically noted and timed consistent guitar riffs present throughout the compositions, virtually if not identical bass notes and sequence, rhythm, structure, crescendo of horns and synthesizers rendering the compositions almost indistinguishable if played over each other and strikingly similar if played in consecutively.”

It is important to note that only the underlying musical composition for “Young Girls” is registered with the US Copyright Office. In this regard, if the case does move forward to trial, the songs should not be played for the jury. Rather, the jury should only be comparing the sheet music. This may sound similar to the recent “Blurred Lines” case brought by the estate of Marvin Gaye against Robin Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. In that case, the judge let the jury hear the songs even though only Gaye’s composition was registered with the Copyright Office. Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. have appealed this decision on the basis that the judge erred by allowing the jury to hear the songs.

‘Uptown Funk’ presents a big target

According to TMZ, Mars has achieved greater success with “Uptown Funk” than any other song he’s produced. As of October 2016, the record has sold more than 6.1 million companies and earns approximately $100,000 a week through Spotify.

Collage’s complaint isn’t the first made against Mars and his collaborator. TMZ noted another instance when The Sequence, a female rap group, claimed Mars and Ronson ripped off their 1979 hit “Funk You Up.” In 2015, another group, The Gap Band, received songwriting credits on “Uptown Funk” after highlighting correlative elements between Mars’ song and their own tune, “Oops Up Side Your Head.” We’ll see if this complaint results in a similar settlement.

Do you have any questions? Would you like to discuss the matter further? If so, please contact me, Shane Birnbaum, at 201-806-3364.

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Scarinci Hollenbeck

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Scarinci Hollenbeck is a full service, general practice law firm that provides a broad range of legal services to a diverse group of clients. Our principal areas of practice include Corporate Transactions and Business Law, Bankruptcy and Creditor’s Rights, Environmental and Land Use Law, Litigation, Public Law, Commercial Real Estate, Sports and Entertainment Law, Tax, Trust and Estate Law. We are also experienced in a number of specialty areas that are incorporated into these core practice areas.
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