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The sad news first: Music plagiarism can bring musicians quite good money. Only in a few cases can it really be determined on the basis of possible plagiarism that musicians have copied from each other. In some cases, however, the plagiarism in the music industry was so great that even courts could establish a match. But how can musical plagiarism be recognized and what can be done in such a case?
Behind most pieces of music and melodies is a thoughtful and above all emotional process. Often, the music is a reflection of the emotions and experiences of the artist, which makes the theft of intellectual property even more sensitive. While musicians may initially feel comfortable following an example, simply copying and reusing content is not exactly the fine or collegial thing to do. It is not uncommon for the musicians of the original song to feel justifiably deceived and robbed.
Another problem with musical plagiarism is that it can only be traced in few cases from a legal perspective. The similarities between the songs are often audible, but cannot be proven beyond doubt. This makes it all the more unpleasant when parts of a song are exploited and used without the consent of the respective artists.
In the past, there has already been some plagiarism in the music industry that has generated intense discourse. Not only up-and-coming artists, but also major players have already been exposed to accusations that have not always been resolved without legal disputes. These are the best known:
While the hit "Viva La Vida" already has more than 500 million hits on YouTube, the original is far from those numbers. Even though there was no legal dispute in this case, the song "If I Could Fly" by Joe Satriani has already been recognized as source material by loyal fans. However, a concrete statement from Coldplay has not yet been made.
A very intense legal dispute arose regarding the plagiarism in the song "Creep" by the band Radiohead. The band was sued by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood. As a result, Hammond and Hazlewood had to be named as co-authors. The same mistake was made about 20 years later by Lana Del Rey, who is said to have copied from Creep.
With the hit "Aaron," which was written for the film Berlin Calling, Paul Kalkbrenner inspired many viewers. However, he took both the name and the content inspiration from the original title. While the original work goes back to Aaron Neville, which was clearly jazzier and stronger, the takeover in this case did not pose any major legal problems.
The Verve and The Rolling Stones had a much more intense legal dispute about music plagiarism. This dispute lasted for more than 20 years. The songwriter Richard Ashcroft deliberately used the original "The Last Time" by the Rolling Stones as a sample. However, the sample was not released, which did not prevent The Verve from releasing the single in 1997. This is how the dispute started. Where the difference to a sample is and why this is a great method to develop songs further, you can find out in this article.
Even Ed Sheeran is not protected from accusations of plagiarism. His song "Thinking Out Loud" is said to have been copied from Marvin Gaye's famous "Let's Get It On." While one related case from 2017 was dismissed, another lawsuit—in which the amount in dispute is 100 million euros—is still ongoing.
In addition to these disputes, there have been a few other songs that have caused a stir when it comes to the topic of music plagiarism. Can you hear the similarity?
The song "Girlfriend" by Avril Lavigne was a real success in 2007. Nevertheless, the songwriters Tommy Dunbar and James Gangwer of the band "The Rubinoos" at the time discovered serious similarities to the song "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." In this case, both parties were able to reach an out-of-court settlement without resorting to litigation. Financially, the settlement was worthwhile, especially for The Rubinoos.
While Sam Smith's "Stay with Me" was a real hit internationally, the artist is said to have copied from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers. The alleged source in question is the track "I Won't Back Down," whereby Sam Smith stated that they had never heard the original from 1989 before. So it did not come to the charge, but the similarity is quite recognizable.
"Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke feat. T.I. and Pharrell released in 2013 and stormed the charts in many countries. However, the family of legendary R&B artist Marvin Gaye quickly recognized similarities to Gaye's song "Got to Give It Up." The court also confirmed this observation, awarding the plaintiffs seven million dollars in compensation.
When it comes to creations in the music industry, it must always be noted that not every similarity can be called plagiarism. In order to have legal claims against musicians, it must be possible to verify exactly to what extent similarities exist. Even if we as listeners find a similarity, this may only be morally (but not legally) corrupt. In order for an accusation of plagiarism in the music industry to be legally valid, there should be more than just an initial clue and the whole thing should be traceable to, for example, sheet music. Only when this is the case can music plagiarism be proven.
Uniqueness and creativity are an important key to success with music in this day and age. The simplicity of repackaging well-known melodies with technical aids to create a seemingly unique song opens up new opportunities for music plagiarism. In order for the music industry to protect itself from negative consequences and image damage, new and creative content is therefore of high importance. So find your own style and differentiate yourself from other artists instead of just copying them.
If you have an idea for your own songs, it is very important to capture and save it quickly. This way you can always listen in and check your idea for the inadvertent use of other people's property. Because even without meaning to, plagiarism can happen easily if you have a certain song in mind without realizing it. If that's the case, rewrite your song so that it becomes your own and you'll see that fans will appreciate it much more.
A well thought-out and above all individual songwriting is the key to long-term success in the music industry. Music plagiarism or simply taking cues from other people's content is the wrong approach and should always be avoided. The following tips are suitable for a thoughtful songwriting:
Creativity still plays the biggest role in songwriting today in order to be able to produce music successfully in the long run. Especially for musicians, we have summarized the most important tips for strong songwriting. If you want to learn more about the ideals of music, it's also worth taking a look at our article on music innovation and artistic idealism. With our personals for musicians we help you here at mukken to expand your musical network and maybe find people who can support you in songwriting.
Originally published on February 9, 2023, updated on February 9, 2023
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