Musical plagiarism

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Music plagiarism is the use or close imitation of another author's music while representing it as one's own original work. Plagiarism in music now occurs in two contexts—with a musical idea (that is, a melody or motif) or sampling (taking a portion of one sound recording and reusing it in a different song). For a legal history of the latter see sampling.


Any music that follows rules of a musical scale is limited by the ability to use a small number of notes. All forms of music can be said to include patterns. Algorithms (or, at the very least, formal sets of rules) have been used to compose music for centuries; the procedures used to plot voice-leading in Western counterpoint, for example, can often be reduced to algorithmic determinacy (citation needed).

For these reasons, accidental or "unconscious" plagiarism is possible. As well, some artists abandon the stigma of plagiarism altogether. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich perhaps commented sarcastically on the issue of musical plagiarism with his use of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," an instantly recognizable tune, in his Prelude No. 15 in D Flat, Op. 87.[1] In some instances, it is also erroneously assumed that songs believed to be in the public domain, are in fact still in copyright such as "Happy Birthday to You".[2]

According to U.S. copyright law, in the absence of a confession, musicians who accuse others of stealing their work must prove "access"—the alleged plagiarizer must have heard the song—and "similarity"—the songs must share unique musical components.[3] though it is difficult to come to a definition of what is "similarity".

Even if a piece of music is in the public domain and thus not protected by copyright, it may still be plagiarism to copy a portion (or all) of it without attribution. There are many changes in the creation, content, dissemination and consumption of popular music in the 21st century.

Folk tradition[edit]

The issue of plagiarism in folk music is problematic as copying and not crediting songs was common. Noted blues author and producer Robert Palmer states "It is the custom, in blues music, for a singer to borrow verses from contemporary sources, both oral and recorded, add his own tune and/or arrangement, and call the song his own".[4] Folklorist Carl Lindahl, refers to these recycling of lyrics in songs as "floating lyrics". He defines it within the folk-music tradition as "lines that have circulated so long in folk communities that tradition-steeped singers call them instantly to mind and rearrange them constantly, and often unconsciously, to suit their personal and community aesthetics".[5] In 2012, when Bob Dylan was questioned over his alleged plagiarism of others music he responded, "It's an old thing – it's part of the tradition. It goes way back".[6] Princeton University professor of American history Sean Wilentz defended Dylan's appropriation of music stating "crediting bits and pieces of another's work is scholarly tradition, not an artistic tradition".[7] In 1998, B.B. King stated on the issue, "I don't think anybody steals anything; all of us borrow."[8]

Musical ideas[edit]

Plagiarism is relevant to different musical styles in different ways.

In classical music, software exists that automatically generates music in the style of another composer, using musical analysis of their works. Most notably, David Cope[9] has written a software system called "Experiments in Musical Intelligence" (or "EMI") that is capable of analyzing and generalizing from existing music by a human composer to generate novel musical compositions in the same style. EMI's output is convincing enough to persuade human listeners that its music is human-generated to a high level of competence. For this reason, Cope's work has been said to not produce original music. A different approach is been followed by Melomics, a technology focused on teaching computers the rules of music composition, not the works of previous composers. This technology has opened the way to truly creative computer-composers, like Iamus and Melomics109. The records produced (Iamus' album and 0music) are in the computer's own style, so they cannot be considered a pastiche or plagiarism of previous works.

According to Theodor Adorno's highly controversial view, popular music in general employs extensive plagiarism: variety in the musical material occurs in details whereas genuinely original musical content tends to be sparse when compared to classical or art music.[10] Contradicting this claim is classical music critic Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times who pointed out that many composers used material from previous composers, giving an example of "John Williams all but lifted the core idea of his soundtrack score from the Scherzo of Erich Korngold's Symphony in F-sharp Minor, written 25 years earlier."[11]


Main article: Sampling (music)

Sampling has long been an area of contention from a legal perspective. Early sampling artists simply used portions of other artists' recordings, without permission; once hip hop and other music incorporating samples began to make significant money, the original artists began to take legal action, claiming copyright infringement. Some sampling artists fought back, claiming their samples were fair use (a legal doctrine in the USA that is not universal). International sampling is governed by agreements such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the WIPO Copyright and Performances and Phonograms Treaties Implementation Act.

Today, most major artists obtain prior authorization to use samples, a process known as "clearing," by gaining permission to use the sample and, usually, paying an upfront fee and/or a cut of the royalties to the original artist. Independent musicians, lacking the funds and legal assistance to clear samples, are at a disadvantage unless they seek the services of a professional sample replay company or producer.

Recently, the free culture movement, started mainly by Lawrence Lessig, has prompted many audio works to be licensed under a Creative Commons license that allows for legal sampling of the work provided the resulting work(s) are licensed under the same terms.


Usually cases of alleged plagiarism are settled out of court, due to the expense of litigation. Most artists try and settle for costs that will be less than defending costs. Since the 1850s federal courts have published fewer than 100 opinions dealing with this issue.[12] The Columbia Law School Library's Music Plagiarism Project provides information on many cases over the decades, with a few dating back to the 19th century.[13]

Successful suits and settlements[edit]

  • In March 1963, the Beach Boys released "Surfin' U.S.A." When the single was released in 1963, the record listed Brian Wilson as the sole composer although the song was published by Arc Music, Chuck Berry's publisher. Later releases, beginning with Best of The Beach Boys in 1966, listed Chuck Berry as the songwriter. Later releases list both writers although the copyright has always been owned, since 1963, by Arc Music. Under pressure from Berry's publisher, Wilson's father and manager, Murry Wilson, had given the copyright, including Brian Wilson's lyrics, to Arc Music.[14]
  • John Lennon's use of a line from Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" ("Here come up flat top / He was movin' up with me/")[16] the 1969 Beatles' song "Come Together" ("Here comes ol' flat-top / He come groovin' up slowly") led to a lawsuit from Berry's publisher, Big Seven Music Corp. In 1973, a settlement was reached whereby Lennon agreed to record three of Big Seven's songs on his next album. Big Seven Music Corp. again sued Lennon for breach of contract, when his 1974 album, Walls and Bridges, failed to contain all three of the songs, with the court awarding the company US$6,795.[17]
  • George Harrison was successfully sued in a prolonged suit that began in 1971 for plagiarizing the Chiffons' "He's So Fine" (1963) for the melody of his own "My Sweet Lord" (1970).[18] In the ruling, the judge stated that he believed Harrison had not intentionally copied the song, but more than likely experienced an episode of cryptomnesia.[19]
  • Led Zeppelin's song "Whole Lotta Love" contained lyrics that were derivative of Willie Dixon's 1962 song "You Need Love." In 1985, Dixon filed a copyright infringement suit, resulting in an out-of-court settlement. Later pressings of Led Zeppelin II credit Dixon as co-writer.[22]
  • According to the book Sharp Dressed Men by former ZZ Top stage manager David Blayney, who was with the band for 15 years, sound engineer Linden Hudson co-wrote much of the material on the ZZ Top album Eliminator album as a live-in high-tech music teacher to band members Frank Beard and Billy Gibbons. Despite continued denials by the band, it settled a five-year legal battle with Hudson in 1986, paying him $600,000 after he proved he held the copyright to the song "Thug" which appeared on Eliminator.[26]
  • American musician Les Paul was successfully sued for plagiarizing Romanian composer Richard Stein's "Sanie cu zurgălăi" (1937) as "Johnny (Is the Boy for Me)" (1953).[32]
  • A lawsuit filed by Tommy Dunbar and James Gangwer of the 1970s power pop band the Rubinoos alleged Avril Lavigne stole their song "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and reworked it into her best-selling single "Girlfriend." The case was settled for an undisclosed sum in January 2008.[33]
  • The Black Eyed Peas were successfully sued by Ohio disc jockey Lynn Tolliver, claiming that his song "I Need a Freak" was sampled without his permission in the Black Eyed Peas song "My Humps." Lynn Tolliver won $1.2 million.[34]
  • Led Zeppelin's song "Dazed and Confused" was derived from a 1967 Jake Holmes song of the same name, which had been performed by Jimmy Page when he was with The Yardbirds.[36][37] In June 2010, Holmes filed a lawsuit against the guitarist for copyright infringement in a United States District Court, claiming Page knowingly copied his work.[38] The case was dismissed with prejudice in January 2012 following a stipulation filed by both parties.[39] The 2012 Led Zeppelin release Celebration Day credits the song to "Jimmy Page, inspired by Jake Holmes".
  • and Chris Brown were accused of stealing house producers Mat Zo and Arty track "Rebound", upon the release of their 2013 collaborative single "Let's Go". This claim was backed by Anjunabeats, the record label behind the producers, in a formal public statement.[40] admitted that he did take the track, following an outcry on social media, and that he was rectifying the issue in an undisclosed licensing deal with the producers.[41]
  • Shakira's Spanish-language single "Loca" was ruled a copy from another songwriter's work. On 19 August 2014, Alvin Hellerstein, senior judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, concluded that the Spanish version of "Loca" had been plagiarised from "Loca con su Tiguere", a mid-1990s song composed by Dominican songwriter Ramon "Arias" Vasquez. Hellerstein ruled in favour of Vasquez and found the two songs to be similar in structure and rhythm. As the Spanish version of "Loca" features Bello singing numerous portions, the judge reasoned that it too was plagiarised from Vasquez's song.[42] After a trial phase, SonyATV Latin and Sony/ATV Discos (the distributors of the Spanish version of "Loca" in the United States) will pay damages to Mayimba Music, the owner of the rights to Vasquez's song and the plaintiff in the lawsuit.[43]
  • Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were found guilty of plagiarising Marvin Gaye's songs "Got to Give It Up" for his single "Blurred Lines", and "After the Dance" for "Love After War", following a unanimous jury verdict on 10 March 2015.[44] Marvin Gaye's children, Frankie Gaye and Nona Gaye, launched legal proceedings against EMI Records and Thicke in October 2013.[45] In a separate allegation, Bridgeport Music claims "Blurred Lines" was remarkably similar to Funkadelic's "Sexy Ways". Both Thicke and Pharrell attempted to thwart the Gaye and Bridgeport lawsuits by claiming their copyright claims were invalid.[46] Thicke and Pharrell were ordered to pay US$7.4 million in damages to the Gaye estate.[47]
  • In April 2015, British producer Mark Ronson was forced to add additional credits to "Uptown Funk" (featuring Bruno Mars) after an out-of-court settlement had been reached with The Gap Band's publishing company, Minder Music. Charlie Wilson, Robert Wilson, Ronnie Wilson, Rudolph Taylor and producer Lonnie Simmons were added as co-writers, and that they would receive a 17% songwriting credit each.[48] Minder Music filed a claim into YouTube's content management system, which prevented publishers to receive their payment, after the song was released failing to credit the original songwriters.[49][50]

Unsuccessful suits[edit]

  • During the mid-1930s, Ira Arnstein became convinced that major pop songwriters had been illegally copying his work. During 1936–46 he brought forth five plagiarism lawsuits though none proved successful.[51][52]
  • The song "Thunderbird" was originally written and performed by the Nightcaps, a band formed in the 1950s when the members were teenagers. The Nightcaps performed the song and distributed it on their album Wine, Wine, Wine but never applied for copyright. ZZ Top began performing its version of the song in 1975, and has conceded that its version is lyrically and musically identical to the Nightcaps' song. The Nightcaps sued ZZ Top for, among other things, copyright infringement, but their claims were dismissed (in 1995) because, in part, ZZ Top had registered a copyright on the song in 1975.[55]
  • In 2003 Michael Cottrill and Lawrence E. Wnukowski claimed that Britney Spears’s "Can’t Make You Love Me," from her 2000 album Oops!... I Did It Again, misappropriated substantial melodic material from their song "What You See is What You Get". The court was skeptical on the question of defendant's access to the plaintiff's work.[56]
  • Elton John, Bernie Taupin, and Big Pig Music, have been accused of plagiarism by South African photographer and songwriter Guy Hobbs. Hobbs wrote a song in 1982 entitled "Natasha," about a Russian waitress on a cruise ship, who was never allowed to leave it. The song was copyrighted in 1983, and sent to Big Pig Music (John's publisher) for a possible publishing deal, but Guy never heard back from the publisher. In 2001, Guy came across the lyric book to "Nikita" and noticed similarities with his song. Despite repeated attempts by Guy to contact John over the issue, he never heard from him, and commenced legal action in 2012.[63][64] On 31 October 2012, a federal judge granted John and Taupin's motion to dismiss, finding that the song did not infringe Hobbs's copyright because the only similar elements were generic images and themes that are not protected under copyright law.[65][66]

Unsettled, alleged, and forgiven incidents[edit]

The following are accusations of plagiarism appearing in notable media:

  • Ritchie Valens' 1959 song "Ooh! My Head" is a thinly veiled cover of Little Richard's 1958 single "Ooh! My Soul."[67] Richard was never credited in the Valens song.
  • Peter Meaden, manager of the High Numbers (before the band changed their name to the Who), has been accused of plagiarising a 1963 recording of "Misery" by the Dynamics, for their debut single B-side "Zoot Suit".[70] The A-side "I'm the Face" guitar and harmonica riffs are also very similar to Slim Harpo's "I've Got Love If You Want It". Both songs are credited only to Peter Meaden on the single.
  • Deep Purple's 1970 song "Black Night" is a liberal uncredited take of Ricky Nelson's 1962 single "Summertime", itself a reworking of the George Gershwin standard, using the same two-bar pentatonic riff.[73][74] Jon Lord during an interview on Heavy Metal Britannia, admitted the song was "nicked".[75]
  • Eric Clapton claimed sole credit for "Give Me Strength", a song released in 1974, but was originally written in 1939 by Chicago gospel singer-songwriter Louise King Mathews.[78] Mathews was financially disadvantaged and could not afford to take the copyright matter to court when she heard the Clapton version during the 1970s.
  • Rod Stewart's 1988 single "Forever Young", not only has the same title as the 1973 Bob Dylan song of the same name, but similar musical ideas and lyrics. When this was pointed out to the singer, a deal was struck via Bob Dylan's attorney where royalties were split 50-50, in which Stewart donated his share to charity.[80]
  • The song "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" by Led Zeppelin was thought to be a traditional song and was credited as "Trad. arr. Page" but it was actually written by folk singer Anne Bredon. Since 1990, the Led Zeppelin version has credited with Bredon, who received a substantial back-payment in royalties.[81]
  • Coldplay were briefly accused of copying portions of "Viva la Vida" from "The Songs I Didn't Write" by American alternative band Creaky Boards.[83] Creaky Boards later retracted the accusations and speculated that both songs may have been inspired by the video game The Legend of Zelda.[84]

The truth is, I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took "American Girl" [for their song "Last Nite"], and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, "OK, good for you." It doesn’t bother me.[86]

  • Korean pop artist G-Dragon has been accused of plagiarism by Sony Music, as his tracks "Heartbreaker" and "Butterfly" are similar to Flo Rida's "Right Round" and Oasis's "She's Electric", respectively.[88][89]
  • iTunes has found cases of musical plagiarism using software that automatically identifies a CD's track information when it's loaded, most notably the many instances with pianist Joyce Hatto.[90]
  • The Black Eyed Peas were charged in January 2010 by Ebony Latrice Batts (known on stage as Phoenix Phenom), claiming that "Boom Boom Pow" is just a copy of her song "Boom Dynamite," which she sent to Interscope Records, the Black Eyed Peas' record label. The suit is ongoing.[91]
  • Madonna has been accused of plagiarism by record label Vallejo Music Group (VMG).[94] VMG claims Madonna stole samples from the 1977 single "Ooh I Love It (Love Break)" by Salsoul Orchestra, for her 1990 charting song "Vogue". In the lawsuit, VMG allege that horns and strings were taken from the earlier track and used in "Vogue" without permission, and intentionally hidden within the mix.[95] The lawsuit was filed in July 2012 with the company seeking damages in addition to royalties gained from "Vogue".[96]
  • Meghan Trainor has been accused of lifting the melody from a 2006 song called "Happy Mode" by the Korean pop band Koyote, for her single "All About That Bass". Songwriter Joo Young Hoon has said he is consulting with a specialized lawyer.[101][102]
  • In 2015, the web page of the Australian music TV channel MAX published an article by music writer Nathan Jolly that noted similarities between Guns N' Roses' song "Sweet Child o' Mine" and the song "Unpublished Critics" by the Australian band Australian Crawl, from 1981.[105] The article posted videos of both songs, inviting readers to compare the two. It also cited a reader's comment on an earlier article[106] that had originally drawn attention to the similarities between the songs. The story went "viral"[107] quickly, encouraging several comments on both the MAX article and the suggestion that the Australian song had influenced "Sweet Child o' Mine".[108][109]
  • The Led Zeppelin song "Black Mountain Side" sounds similar to Bert Jansch's version of the traditional folk song "Down by Blackwaterside". No legal action was ever taken against Led Zeppelin, because it could not be proved that the recording in itself constituted Jansch's own copyright, as the basic melody is traditional.[111]
  • A number of people have put forth the opinion that the introduction, and opening guitar arpeggios, of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" bear a close resemblance to the 1968 instrumental "Taurus" by the group Spirit.[112] In May 2014 an attorney hired by Randy California's estate announced plans to file a copyright infringement suit that will seek a co-writing credit for California on "Stairway to Heaven." [113][114]

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