Volkswagen Accused of Musical Plagiarism

These days, just about every TV spot for new vehicles uses some kind of licensed music.  Volkswagen was one of the pioneers of this approach having turned doomed English folksinger Nick Drake’s 1972 song “Pink Moon” into something of a hit with this 1999 commercial for their Cabrio.

Volkswagen–or more specifically, their ad agency, DDB–has had much success with this approach over the years.  Everyone from Kings of Leon to ELO to Stereolab have all agreed to let their music be used to sell VWs.

However, not everyone wants to play ball.  DDB wanted to use the Beach House song, “Take Care” for an ad for the Polo.  Beach House, though, “politely declined.”  Case closed, right?

Well, not quite.  DDB then when to a production house called Sniffy Dog that specializes in bespoke music with instructions to create something similar to “Take Care.”  The result was a song called “Whispers and Stories.”

This isn’t illegal nor is it particularly unusual.  But with licensing of music for TV commercials and important revenue stream for artists these days, this end-run feels sneaky and icky.  Emimen, for example, is fighting Audi (a division of Volkswagen) over a piece of music used in an European ad that sounds suspiciously like, well, Eminem.

Just so you know what everyone is fighting about, here’s a side-by-side comparison of the songs in the Polo controversy.

First, Beach House.

Now, the Polo ad.

(Story via Jalopnik)

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ 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.

2 thoughts on “Volkswagen Accused of Musical Plagiarism

  • May 30, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    First, let me qualify myself as both the protagonist, and the enemy. I am a guitarist/ songwriter with 25 years experience in original bands who writes for the love and personal fulfillment. I am also a composer for TV – I write, record, and mix the music for Jersey Shore, Kardashians, Punk'd, etc. etc. as well as a variety of ads.

    Although a case can be built "against the man" in the Beach House/ VW instance, it seems what VW did was cop the "feel" and emotional content of the Beach House song, without taking a chord progression, melody, or a sample of it. I can't hear anything that would make loyal Beach House fans mistake this ad music for Beach House, specifically. Sniffy Dog (and their legal team) did a good job of only taking the emotional feel of the original; and if that were grounds for lawsuit, decades of music would be subject to litigation.

    It's crappy that agencies have to use existing music when cooking up campaigns – often "place holder" music works so well that they are compelled to try and licence it. What do you do when you can't? I'm honestly not defending them, but anyone who thinks creativity and commerce walk hand – in – hand in the real world of tv and budgets is kidding themselves.

    Are we to blame the Beatles for their early attempts at writing Chuck Berry songs? What about M. Night Shyamalan for his obvious love of Hitchcock's camera angles, lighting, and storylines? "Copping the feel of…" is as old as the hills. I think it's easiest to be angered at this situation because it's not a beloved singer doing it, it's some suits in an office.

  • June 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    As someone who works in the advertising industry (but not exactly a "suit in an office"), my perspective on this topic is that it's a hard one to nail down.

    In my experience, creative teams will often shoot for the moon conceptually and we all cross our fingers for approval – and naturally, this includes attempting to secure licensing for music to be used in TV spots.

    I certainly can't speak on behalf of the entire industry, but I'm definitely comfortable saying that intentions are typically quite genuine. Which is to say, my colleagues and I strive to obtain the proper legal rights for any audio we are aiming to secure. But occasionally, we can't get these rights.

    The reasons can be myriad – prohibitively expensive, artist doesn't like the product/brand, artist doesn't want to be seen as a "sell out", etc, etc, etc.

    So…what are we supposed to do? Well, we keep looking for established songs that uphold the same sentiment as our original choice, or we hire someone to create a new piece for us. Only on very rare occasions is Plan B the primary option, and that doesn't sound like what's happened here in the Beach House scenario.

    Sounds to me like the band was given an opportunity to have their song appear in a commercial for Volkswagen, to presumably be heard by many people, and with likely fair compensation for their agreement…but they declined. Unfortunately, they no longer hold the winning hand – another song needs to be found or made.

    Now, does that give someone license to "rip off Beach House" and create a carbon copy of their song? Of course not. But something "in the ballpark" hardly seems like a punishable crime, nor is it copyright infringement.


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