Let’s Talk About Musical Plagiarism and What It Really Means

Every once a while, allegations start flying that a new song by Artist A has ripped off an old song by Artist B. “Plagiarism!” comes the inevitable cry.  Noel Gallagher, Carly Rae Jepson, Coldplay, Foo FightersLana Del Rey, Sam Smith, Men at Work, Sum 41, Robin Thicke/Pharrell and hundreds of others have had to defend themselves against charges of musical thievery. Here’s one of the most famous cases.

But before anyone should just to conclusions, let’s ask these questions.

1.  Is this really a case of artistic theft or just an unfortunate sonic coincidence? Perhaps Artist A was completely unaware of the song by Artist B and independently discovered that melody and chord progression.  After all, there’s a finite way of combining the notes of the Western scale in pleasing ways that conform to our pop and rock sensibilities. It’s only natural that after almost 70 years of rock’n’roll that there’s going to be some duplication.

A quick bit of math reveals that there are 479,001,600 possible combinations of those 12 notes – if you just played them once each. But hang on. You just can’t stick a bunch of tones and semitones together and expect them to sound good. Music has to sound pleasing to the ear and soul, too.

2. What benefit is there for an artist to copy another artist’s work? In the age of the Internet, it’s easy to get caught. Who would want to risk the humiliation and the potential legal ramifications of ripping off someone else’s song?

3.  How do we know that some kind of preemptive backroom deal wasn’t struck once the similarities were discovered? This happens a lot more than the general public realizes.  I have a friend who wrote a hit song in 1985. Several years later, his publishing company was advised by the manager of a European band that an upcoming single sounded quite a bit like that 1985 hit. A financial deal was worked out so that my friend was compensated in exchange.  He ended up making some good money from a #1 song he didn’t write.

So let’s say an accusation does make it to court. What does the law really say about music plagiarism? Buzzfeed has a good rundown of how things are evaluated in the US. Meanwhile, Medium.com looks at the issue of soundalike songs.

Give both articles a good read. Keep the facts in mind the next time you hear someone accuse someone else of ripping off their song.

 

Alan Cross

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.

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