“There was really just one song ever written and that was by Adam and Eve. We just do variations”
Keith Richards as he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York in 1993.
That my friends is music in a nutshell. All forms of art is inspired by the past. And then corporations came looking to profit from art and they lobbied the governments of the time to start writing laws. These laws would get enhanced until it got to a stage where the laws only benefit the corporation that controls/holds the copyright of the artist.
The word plagiarism in music is a dirty word.
If you look at a dictionary like the MERRIAM-WEBSTER ONLINE DICTIONARY, plagiarise means;
- to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own – Isn’t this what Sharon Osbourne did in Ozzy’s name for “Bark At The Moon”. Bob Daisley and Jake E. Lee wrote the album and Sharon had Ozzy listed as the sole songwriter.
- to use (another’s production) without crediting the source – Isn’t this what Metallica did with “Enter Sandman” and “Welcome Home”. Kingdom Come did it. Every British Rock Invasion did it with the Blues of the 30’s and 40’s.
- to commit literary theft – Isn’t this is what Robert Plant did with some of his Led Zeppelin lyrics.
- to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source – Isn’t this is the whole history of music. There is a pretty good chance that latest album of your favourite artist was influenced in sound and feel by songs of the past.
In music, if you play the notes A, B, C right after each other, you are technically playing the first three notes of a musical scale. And there is a 100% chance that those same three notes will appear in someone else’s song or have already appeared in a song written in the past.
So should we credit the person that came up with the Aeolian scale thousands of years ago for those three notes?
But if I was writing an essay I am required to credit anything that is the same as something that came before.
But what about the millions of songs that have A, B, C in a lead break or in a vocal melody or in a riff?
See how silly it gets when you start to use a scholarly term like plagiarism in music. Based on it’s dictionary meaning, then plagiarism has been around in music since the dawn of time.
But plagiarism is relevant these days because our culture believes it owns everything. We believe our ideas and words and stories are so original, we worry that others will “steal” them from us in some way and make millions of dollars from them, while we make nothing.
The fact that other people in the world are thinking the same ideas or writing similar words or living a life similar to ours, doesn’t even come into the equation.
And while plagiarism does exist in academic/literature circles, it really doesn’t exist in music. Because music is a sum of what came before it. If certain songs sound too similar, then that is copyright infringement and it exists in music.
That is what Vanilla Ice did when he lifted the bass line from “Under Pressure” and called it “Ice, Ice Baby”.
But when I hear Five Finger Death Punch lift the vocal melody from “The Ultimate Sin” and re-use it for two lines in an eight line verse in “Lift Me Up”, I call that “influenced by music that came before to create something new.” In other words, it is a derivative work.
But with so much money in music, especially around hit songs, the lines of inspiration have been reclassified as theft/plagiarism. Copyright infringement is now all about censorship and piracy.
And what you have is a jury of non-music experts setting precedents that blur the lines even more. And you have heirs of artists suing to protect their pension incomes, when the songs their deceased parent or grandparent wrote, should be in the PUBLIC DOMAIN as Copyright intended them to be.