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Blurred Lines: The Complicated Nature of Music Plagiarism

By Hanna Guidry

Edited by Juliette Draper and Aarati Parajulee


From Led Zeppelin to former Beatles to Olivia Rodrigo to Sam Smith, even the most popular of artists struggle to escape accusations of plagiarism. Music copyright infringement is a tricky legal issue that has been subject to significant debate and controversy since the dawn of popular music. To nip infringement accusations in the bud and minimize superfluous claims, the courts quickly developed a legal test to determine the similarity of two pieces. First, the accuser must prove that the infringer would have had reasonable access to the material that is being infringed upon. [1] An infringement case would not pass this access test if the accuser’s original material had never been released to the public and had never played on the radio. The second test stipulates that the two pieces must have substantial similarity — in short, “the average listener” should be able to “tell that one song has been copied from the other.” [1] Even some of the most famous, talented, and universally recognized musicians were still unable to clear these infringement tests in court, giving the issue of copyright infringement far more depth than it appears to have on the surface.


Is it Possible to Subconsciously Copy a Melody?

Bright Songs Music Corp v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd, the case against ex-Beatle George Harrison, rules that subconscious plagiarism is still plagiarism [2]. In 1976, Bright Songs Music Corporation filed suit against Harrison’s music company for plagiarizing the melody of The Chiffons’ 1963 hit song “He’s So Fine” in his 1970 release “My Sweet Lord.” In the opinion, the judge asserts that, given the original popularity of “He’s So Fine” in both England and America, Harrison had awareness of the original song. The judge also notes that the two songs have substantial similarities in musical structure, harmony, and form. [3] Notably, the judge concedes that Harrison “did not deliberately use the music of ‘He’s So Fine.’” [3] Nevertheless, while acknowledging that the plagiarism was “subconsciously accomplished,” the judge still ruled in favor of Bright Songs Music Corporation. “My Sweet Lord” continues to be one of Harrison’s most famous songs in his post-Beatles career; in fact, it was even used in the soundtrack for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 in 2017. When the case was settled, Harrison ended up paying $587,000 to Allen Klein, who owned the rights to the original song. [4] Though Harrison’s plagiarism was unintentional, he still had to face the legal consequences of the songs’ similarities.


Vanilla Ice’s Unique Solution

Rapper Vanilla Ice was definitely “Under Pressure” after he lifted the iconic riff from Queen and David Bowie’s 1981 hit. However, instead of fighting it out in court, the rapper purchased the rights to “Under Pressure.” Despite his purchase, Vanilla Ice continues to deny any accusations of plagiarism, an assertion that is difficult to believe when listening to the two songs side by side. When asked in an interview why he bought the song instead of dealing with legal repercussions, Ice simply replied, “it was cheaper than a lawsuit.” Since Ice bought the song, Queen’s spokespeople have stated that the publishing rights are shared between the two artists. [5] Though this solution worked for Vanilla Ice, it is not always possible for other artists whose songs weren’t as lucrative as hits like “Ice Ice Baby.” While Ice’s reaction represents one possible way for artists to circumvent accusations of plagiarism, most other cases involve the artist eventually admitting to musical similarities.


The Blurred Lines Between Paying Homage and Copying a Tune

The late Marvin Gaye had many hits throughout his career, one of which was his 1977 song “Got to Give it up.” Decades later, in 2013, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ “Blurred Lines” was played generously on the radio. However, a side-by-side comparison of the two songs shows substantial similarities, many of which were noticed by Marvin Gaye’s estate and led them to subsequently file suit and win their case against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. Following the suit, Gaye’s estate received over seven million dollars. [6] However, Thicke and Williams claimed that the similarities were a result of them being influenced by past musical genres and worry about future implications for artists who draw upon the innovations of other musicians. Pharrell Williams’ spokesman was even quoted saying that the decision “sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward.” [6]


With Led Zeppelin, The Song Remains the Same

“Stairway to Heaven” is one of the most famous rock songs of all time, but it also carries with it one of the longest legal battles. The accusing party was the estate of a deceased guitarist from a 1960s band called Spirit. They claimed that the iconic guitar introduction in “Stairway” was plagiarized from a Spirit song called “Taurus.” [7]. Though “Stairway” was released in 1971, the accusing party filed suit in May 2014 – forty-three years after the song was first recorded. The case was not fully resolved until the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Zeppelin won: though guitarist Jimmy Page owned a copy of the accusing party’s album and therefore had access, the judge ruled that the musical sections in question included “unprotectable common musical elements” such as chromatic scales. [7] Though Zeppelin eventually avoided the court’s ruling of plagiarism for this song, years of litigation over such a famous song would be harrowing for any artist. However, in the age of digital music consumption, there may be a way to avoid plagiarism troubles and allow artists more creative freedom.


Modern Solutions: How to Avoid Decades of Legal Battles

Nowadays, it is not unusual for artists to simply add other names to their writing credits to avoid legal battles. Following the release of Olivia Rodrigo’s album Sour, many individuals flocked to social media to point out similarities between Rodrigo’s songs and those of Taylor Swift and Paramore. To avoid legal backlash, Rodrigo publicly acknowledged musical and lyrical similarities and openly discussed the way she has been musically influenced by those artists. She also awarded Paramore and Taylor Swift co-writing credits on several of her songs. [8] Similarly, after many listeners pointed out that Sam Smith’s song “Stay With Me” bore a significant resemblance to “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, Smith added Petty and Lynne’s names to the writing credits of their song. [9] In the past, when digitally streamable forms of music were nonexistent, changing writing credits was virtually impossible. However, with modern technology, streaming services can update writing credits instantaneously. This process makes it much easier for artists to be influenced by other musicians while also ensuring that credit is given to original artists where credit is due.


All in All, It’s Just Another Brick in the Wall

It is clear that music plagiarism is complex and that no two cases are the same. Some are able to prevent legal action before it happens, while others are forced into years of courtroom battles. Of course, there is another way in which some of these cases are handled without any threats of litigation whatsoever. The famous organ riff from the Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera is eerily similar to a melody found in Pink Floyd’s 1971 composition “Echoes,” a piece its composer would have likely been able to access at the time of its release. However, when former Floyd bassist Roger Waters was asked if he would ever consider taking legal action, he replied: “life’s too long to bother with suing Andrew f**king Lloyd Webber.” [10]


 

[1] Kurt Dhal, What Constitutes Music Plagiarism? The Sam Smith and Robin Thicke Trials, Lawyer Drummer (Mar. 2017), https://lawyerdrummer.com/2017/03/music-plagiarism-2/


[2]George Harrison Guilty of Plagiarizing, Subconsciously, a '62 Tune for a '70 Hit, The New York Times (Sept. 6, 1976), https://www.nytimes.com/1976/09/08/archives/george-harrison-guilty-of-plagiarizing-subconsciously-a-62-tune-for.html


[3] 420 F.Supp. 177 (1976)


[4]Bill Higgins, Throwback Thursday: When “My Sweet Lord” Was a “Blurred Lines” for George Harrison, The Hollywood Reporter (Mar.19, 2015) https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/throwback-thursday-my-sweet-lord-781675/


[5]Blurred Lines: Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke ordered to pay Marvin Gaye heirs $7m for copying hit, ABC News (Mar. 2015) https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-11/blurred-lines-stars-pharrell,-thicke-pay-for-copying-song/6301172


[6]Vanilla Ice Claims He Bought 'Under Pressure,' Queen Says 'Not Quite', Univision (Jul.14, 2017) https://www.univision.com/albuquerque/kiot/musica/rock-clasico/vanilla-ice-claims-he-bought-under-pressure-queen-says-not-quite


[7] Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, 16 F. 1 (9th Cir. 2020).


[8]Kirbie Johnson, Olivia Rodrigo, Paramore, and the murky tides of copyright infringement, Dazed (Sept.7, 2021) https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/54036/1/olivia-rodrigo-paramore-and-the-murky-tides-of-copyright-infringement-good-4-u


[9]Takia Black, Sam Smith sued for copyright infringement, The Geroge-Anne Media Group (Feb.5, 2015) https://thegeorgeanne.com/23989/inkwell/inkwell-arts-entertainment/sam-smith-sued-for-copyright-infringement/


[10]Jack Whatley, How Pink Floyd inspired 'The Phantom of the Opera', Far Out Magazine (Apr. 24, 2021) https://faroutmagazine.co.uk/how-pink-floyd-roger-waters-inspired-the-phantom-of-the-opera/


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