The Blurred Line Between Musical Plagiarism And Influence
Plagiarism seemed to be a contagious disease that is usually known to plague the academe, but as the age of “internet of things” bloom, it had affected not only scholars, scientists, and famous intellectuals. In fact, plagiarism devastated artists, and lately pop music chart toppers.
This year alone, several artists had been called out for being a copycat of other artists. Some artists admit to really being under the influence of some singers or musical icons while making their piece. Others, however completely deny the allegation, especially when the complainant is not as famous as they are or if they have not been given enough attention even to bother copying their work.
But the questions lie, how can one tell the line between being under an artist’s influence and outright plagiarism? Can someone own a particular musical genre? And will copying someone’s style get you sued?
Plagiarism And Copyright Law
The Copyright Act of 1976 assures artists that as soon as their original musical composition is finished, they assume copyrights on it already. In fact, copyright registration of the said song or musical piece is not required.
This act helps artists, whether big or small, to maintain authorship, ownership, reproduction, sales and performance rights. The moment it is finished and published, they will automatically be credited its copyrights.
Everyone may not be fully aware, but musical copyright plagiarism isn’t only about the similarity of tone/s. In fact, once there’s a spark of similarity being heard, it can already be a ground for plagiarism.
Here’s a list of the musical elements covered by the Copyrights Act:
Melody is the musical progression of single tones that produces unique musical phrase.
Rhythm is the musical pattern or tempo, composed of rising and falling melody and harmony beats.
Chord progression or harmonic progression is a series of chords that makes up the musical piece.
Lyrics is the literary part of the musical piece expressed through singing.
This is the summation of all the elements mentioned above, but the copyright law ruling music isn’t limited to its basic definition. When two or more different musical pieces have a reflective or mirroring similarity in any of its parts, that can be considered as a ground for plagiarism.
This is why musical influence can be used as a basis for litigation by an artist and his/her alleged copycat work.
“Blurred Lines” by William Pharrell and Robin Thicke had been released in 2013 and had become a chart topper in Billboard’s Hot 100 claiming the first place. This fantastic first victory of Robin Thicke had also been seemingly his last after the family of famous music icon Marvin Gaye, filed a case of plagiarism against them.
Pharrell Williams admitted to the fact that he is a fan of Marvin Gaye but said he didn’t listen to Gaye’s song, particularly “Got To Give It Up,” when he was making the music sheets.
However, Robin Thicke, later on, admitted that he was thinking of Gaye’s song as an inspiration to generate more sales. But he retracted his statements about the composition because he wasn’t really as hands on with the job as such Williams and the others were.
The case was won by lawyer Atty Richard Busch, an Intellectual Property Rights lawyer who represented Gaye’s Family who later on gathered fifty percent of the songs overall sales, amounting to more than eight million dollars.
In addition to what they received, they are also asking a percentage of the performance or concert sales, as provided by law.
Musical Influence is only positively applied for its aesthetic purpose. Using musical influence deliberately as a source or reference for a musical piece that you plan to publish or sell can be a good ground for your musical inspiration to sue you for plagiarizing.
Imitation is still a good source of flattery, but it has its limitations. Unless you plan to give due credit and recognize your idol’s or musical inspiration something that rewards them for their effort, imitation is not good.
Musical Idea: Melody, Motif
The grounds of copyrights law is divided into two- musical idea and sampling. Musical idea is based on Melody and Motif.
Thicke and Williams weren’t the only artists who faced litigation cases from Marvin Gaye’s family. In fact, Ed Sheeran himself have also been called out for allegedly plagiarizing Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” song over his viral song “Thinking Out Loud.”
As the complainant states, Sheeran copied the melody, harmony, and rhythm of Gaye’s song, and it also has a noticeable similarity in drum composition.
However, as the cases progress, it has been found out that there’s no direct similarity between Sheeran’s and Gaye’s work except the “generic” harmonic and rhythmical concepts that doesn’t bear any significant basis for plagiarism or for the latter’s work to invoke copyright protection.
The judge’s decision isn’t out till this date.
This isn’t the only instance Ed Sheeran received a call out for musical plagiarism. This worldwide renowned artist, who composed and sang the soundtracks of famous TV Series and blockbuster movies, received another litigation case from UK composers.
Sheeran’s Photograph was said to be a deliberate copy of the song “Amazing,” sang by then UK 2012 X-Factor winner Matt Cardle. Although Cardle believes Sheeran to be a genius of his own, his album contributors namely Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard, filed a case and will be represented by Atty Busch, the same lawyer who won the case against Williams and Thicke.
Harrington and Leonard say that there’s an obvious and noticeable similarity between the melody and rhythm of their song “Amazing” to that of Sheeran’s “Photograph.”
The case is still ongoing, and Sheeran’s team hasn’t given any comment about it yet.
The claim of the complainants is more prominent in the chorus, where almost every single tone, chord succession, and rhythm is similar. And when both their choruses are played on the same track, the songs surprisingly sound the same, that there’s almost no distinct difference between them except their lyrics.
Numerous pop music artists also went through online criticisms and severe litigation cases where they have to give part of their total earnings or royalties. Although not all of them went through litigation cases but online shaming.
Online shaming of famous artists who were allegedly copycats of other artists, significantly affects their performance, career, and sales for an indefinite amount of time. The time to redeem one’s self during these times can be tough and challenging, and unless proven innocent of committing copyright infringement, they probably couldn’t recover for the rest of their life.
The art of composing an original song has become very challenging for artists. Artistic freedom can be limited by the fear of being misconstrued as a plagiarizer. It ‘s hard to maintain the originality of the song if the composer keeps on changing his/her composition just to adjust to the growing number of songs worldwide.
These reasons make it difficult for artists to stand out from the rest of all the other artists, whether they are alive or not. The growing number of individual artists nowadays, whether original composers or cover singers, also made the competition tight in the music industry.
Sampling is when a portion of an artist’s recordings are being used without their permission. Although, some defendant plead to being unaware of committing such infringement, especially because the similarity is only a small fraction of the song itself, and the rest is, of course, different than that of the original singer’s musical piece.
Justin Bieber, a famous Canadian singer/ songwriter, also had been faced with litigation cases from an individual artist named White Hinterland. Bieber’s “Sorry” had a noticeable 4-note prologue resemblance to Hinterland’s “Ring the Bell.”
The resemblance is only noticeable on the first four notes that serve as a prologue and melodic frame for both Bieber and Hinterland’s song. Hinterland filed a case against Bieber for copying her work.
But had it been the other way around, do you think Bieber would pursue filing a case against a startup artist who’s trying to mimic his song?
The truth is, most of these plagiarism cases are prosecuted only when the song is raking millions of returns. Well, as a composer you should be rewarded for composing a multi-million dollar hit, but did you think your song would sell that much had the singer been you or another individual startup artist?
While it is encouraged that musicians and composers push their rights as owners, one must also take note that should there be unfortunate cases of plagiarism from a well-known artist; you should also consider the effort they put into their careers. It is not easy to get to where they are, but that doesn’t also excuse them of the crime.
It is fair to ask something from them like royalties, but you have to keep in mind the money spent on marketing, nights devoted to studios recording the song, and finally the years spent to get where they are currently are.
It is easy to recognize and file cases against writers and singers who are already popular, but are start up musicians also protective of their rights against another?
These plagiarism cases between a startup artist to another probably wouldn’t spark as much commotion compared to famous artists.
Is Pop Music Plagiarism Even Worth Going After?
Pop Music is probably the most plagiarized and the most abused work of art. Almost everyone using Youtube doing cover songs are probably not educated about the harm they are doing.
Doing cover songs is also another form of plagiarism. Unless the cover singer asks permission or license to use or perform the song, they will be held liable for plagiarism. Some people thinks that a published music is a public property that they can play with, under the circumstances offered by the Fair Use Law.
But the premise of Fair Use is limited to only three different factors which are, commentary, criticism, and parody. Unless the use of the song or music piece falls into any of these three categories, it is considered illegal and plagiarism. Even the music video usage should only last for 7 seconds, beyond that it is punishable by law.
But most of these singers do not directly mean to generate money from the song or music itself but in singing the song, or showing off their talent in hopes of finding a producer or a recording gig. These activities do not have a negative impact to the original singer or composer, in fact, cover songs, prove the popularity of that artist or musical piece.
Because of these reasons famous pop singers do not file cases or give any legal attention to these activities, in contrary, cover singers even get an opportunity to share their fame when they gather enough attention.
Unless there is an intention to sell the song, these startup artists are safe.
The familiarity of these activities, although illegal, made it all the more widespread. This culture of impunity among startup artists, cynical as it may sound, resulted in freedom in artistic expressions and styles.
Creative freedom opened opportunities to young startup artists. Creating cover videos or versions of popular chart toppers will give them higher chances of exposure. Famous artists and music licensing companies doesn’t usually go on becoming a copyright troll or anything since it is understandable that the purpose of the act is to sell their talent and not the song.
It is also expensive to get permission or license to use a song, which would more likely discourage people to use it. It is a win-win situation for both the pop singer and the startup artist.
The widespread plagiarism in popular music may sound abusive in nature, but it opens doors for artistic freedom, variety and more popularity. Unless it is raking millions, it is more likely that famous singers won’t go after startup musicians trying to mimic them.
Vincent Spivey, is a passionate blogger, researcher, and paraglider. He is focused on educating more people about the importance of Intellectual Property Rights, and he is currently with Livingstone and Loeffler Law firm to make this happen. If you don’t see him in his office reading and reviewing IP cases, you will see him riding clouds in the coasts of Miami.
This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.