There’s been a particular copyright case at the moment that’s been getting a lot of press exposure. Rumours circulated a couple of weeks ago claiming that Radiohead were taking legal action against Lana Del Rey for the similarities between her song ‘Get Free’ and their 1993 release ‘Creep’. Lana Del Rey supposedly confirmed these rumours in a tweet, implying she’d offered 40% of the royalties of the song already, but that Radiohead were being difficult and demanding a 100% share. For me this raises a lot of interesting questions relating to authorship and ownership in contemporary popular culture. Can an artist really ‘own’ a chord progression? And is it ever possible to take the public statements that artists make at face value?
Firstly, to clarify, Radiohead have recently issued a response to Lana Del Rey’s claims, insisting that no legal action has been taken, and that instead they had only been ‘in discussion with Lana Del Rey’s representatives’ over the familiarity between the two songs. In situations like these it’s always important to bear in mind that ‘artists’ themselves actually consist of many different people. Sometimes, although somewhat dehumanizing, it’s better to think in terms of ‘Lana Del Rey’ the brand, rather than Lana Del Rey the person. It’s all too likely that this quarrel has been initiated not by the artists themselves but by any number of people who represent them. Unfortunately, the near-total confidentiality of the industry means that any ‘facts’ about situations like these are almost always speculative. Having cleared that out of the way, whatever side of the debate you are on, it’s absolutely no use blaming Lana Del Rey (aka Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, by the way) or Thom Yorke themselves—as human beings—for these issues.
…when you base a song on a four-chord pattern, unsurprisingly, given the number of songs that exist, other songs which also use four chords will probably end up using the same harmony.
Secondly, are the songs actually similar enough to warrant an infringement of copyright? Listening to both, it’s not hard to understand that the only obvious similarity between the two is the harmony. Both songs make use of the repeating chord progression G major-B major-C major-C minor. Okay, so they are both in 4/4 time as well, but this is so commonplace in all western music that it almost doesn’t deserve mentioning: there’s no way you can copyright a time signature. Beyond this the phrase lengths are slightly similar, but the rhythm and melody that Lana Del Rey sings in ‘Get Free’ isn’t really like ‘Creep’ at all. It’s also worth saying at this point that Radiohead were subject to a lawsuit themselves a while back for the similarities between ‘Creep’ and an earlier song ‘The Air That I Breathe’ by The Hollies, for exactly the same harmonic reasons. Perhaps ‘Get Free’ is a chance for Radiohead to earn some money back by capitalizing on the simplicity of the same chord progression which left them in a comparable situation 25 years ago?
In fact, many songs use this exact chord progression, if not something incredibly similar. It may sound obvious but when you base a song on a four-chord pattern, unsurprisingly, given the number of songs that exist, other songs which also use four chords will probably end up using the same harmony. A quick google search pointed me to several examples: ‘Mr Watson’ by Cruel Youth; the theme song to ‘Steven Universe’; ‘Laura’ by Girls; and ‘Better Than Me’ by The Brobecks, just to name a few. The choruses from David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ as well as ‘Goodbye Moonmen’ from Rick & Morty also use similar harmony. Having thought about this, it feels as though the current copyright case (if it exists at all) might have been initiated for financial or publicity reasons, rather than an attempt to serve any kind of artistic justice. Either way, it’s certainly brought both artists a great deal of attention.
First published 19/1/18.