I’ll say it again: There are only so many ways you can order the tones of the Western musical scale in a way that’s pleasing to the ear and soul. And when you narrow that town to the sequences that work for rock, pop, R&B, rap, country and other forms of our popular music, that number is even smaller.
A little more than a hundred years into the era of recorded music with hundreds of millions of songs written and recorded, it’s inevitable that unfortunate sonic coincidences are going to occur. Just because you discover a song that sounds similar to another older song doesn’t mean that the composer of the newer track ripped anyone off. It could very well be that a younger person from a later generation independently discovered that same pleasing sequence of notes and had never, ever heard the older songs.
Songwriting is hard. While you can’t copyright beats, album titles, song titles, chord changes or riffs, melody is another matter. And we’re running out of them.
Another case in point: the recent kerfluffle between Radiohead and Lana Del Rey over the similarities between “Creep” from Pablo Honey and “Get Free” from Del Rey’s Lust for LIfe. This one was made extra-weird by the fact that “Creep” had already been judged to have plagiarised The Hollies’ 1974 song, “The Air That I Breathe.”
The New Yorker takes a deeper look at the melody shortage crisis.
On Sunday, the singer Lana Del Rey suggested, via Twitter, that she was being sued by Radiohead for copyright infringement over supposed similarities between her “Get Free” and their “Creep.” “It’s true about the lawsuit,” she wrote. “Although I know my song wasn’t inspired by Creep, Radiohead feel it was and want 100% of the publishing – I offered up to 40 over the last few months but they will only accept 100. Their lawyers have been relentless, so we will deal with it in court.”
From the start, Del Rey’s announcement felt fishy. “Inspired by” is awfully gentle language to describe a plagiarism allegation, and besides, Radiohead already conceded partial songwriting credit on “Creep” to Mike Hazlewood and Albert Hammond—years ago, a judge found that “Creep” too closely echoes “The Air That I Breathe,” a hit Hazelwood and Hammond wrote for the Hollies, in 1974—meaning the band itself doesn’t even control the whole of its publishing. Eventually, Warner/Chappell*, Radiohead’s label at the time of the song’s release, refuted her claim: “It’s clear that the verses of ‘Get Free’ use musical elements found in the verses of ‘Creep’ and we’ve requested that this be acknowledged in favor of all writers of ‘Creep,’ ” the company said in a statement. “To set the record straight, no lawsuit has been issued and Radiohead have not said they ‘will only accept 100%’ of the publishing of ‘Get Free.’ ”