Musical plagiarism – a battle worth fighting?6th June 2018
I cannot be the only person who greets yet another music plagiarism case with a sigh of frustration. This time it is the turn of James Arthur to be sued by The Script over his single ‘Say You Won’t Let Go’.
For anyone who listens to the openings of these songs the similarities in chord progression are undeniable. Even the rhythms of the verses make it very difficult to tell which generic pop song you have opted for. Yet the choruses, perhaps the strongest part of The Script’s 2008 hit ‘Man who Can’t be Moved’, are entirely different.
I am not oblivious to the fact that a musician’s creative integrity needs to be maintained. But when you read that in this case, it is yet again the lawyer in the infamous Marvin Gaye and Blurred Lines case, some red flags and tensions between the corporate and the creative start to be raised for me.
The legal ‘test’ used in the Blurred Lines case was twofold. Firstly, an ‘objective’ test to check for ‘substantial similarity’ on a technical level. This can be done by musicologists and so is not where I feel uneasy.
The unease I feel comes with the ‘subjective’ test as to whether ‘an ordinary person would find the works to be substantially similar’. For me, this highlights the weakness at the heart of music plagiarism cases, and that is in the line between copying and inspiration.
Plagiarism is a game for the successful, while the smaller artist cannot take risks with over-using their influence for fear of these ever multiplying court cases.
For example, you can hear echoes of a big influencer like The Smiths in nearly every slightly edgy indie band from the 80s onward, but does that mean they all owe Morrissey royalties? Obviously, I am exaggerating here, but I think it is imperative to maintain creative exchange, instead of sacrificing it to a record label whispering ‘my precious’ possessively in the witness stand.
At the heart of every cohesive musical genre, from blues to jazz to rock, is an element of ‘plagiarism’. But this is a plagiarism that comes from a place of mutual respect and involves a certain element of riffing on ideas and experimenting with already successful forms.
‘Covers’ clearly being the pinnacle of this kind of collaboration across ages. Even Mozart has been accused of lifting ‘The Magic Flute’ from an earlier, less well known, piece called ‘The Beneficient Dervish’. To give a non-musical example, Shakespeare himself was infamous for taking and reworking established stories. The history of creative progression is inextricably tied to that of copying.
Granted, there is a line between stealing and a general sense of collaboration. But the consistent appearance of these stories in the new really disheartens me, as it infects creativity with a nasty element of corporate ownership – something I want far away from my music.
Sundara Karma’s ‘Explore’ sounds uncannily like Pulp’s ‘Common People’ but I think that Jarvis Cocker would have enough confidence to see this as a flattering signal of influence, rather than taking the younger band through a vitriolic court battle.
A point I will concede on, is that having a plagiarism law can help protect smaller artists from being exploited by larger more successful writers. The most famous example of this would be Led Zeppelin and their surprising list of plagiarised songs, including the contested ‘Stairway to Heaven’ case which may or may not have been stolen from Spirit’s ‘Taurus’.
On the issue, Plant said ‘Well, you only get caught when you’re successful. That’s the game.’ As truthful as this is, it is where respectful collaboration crosses a line into blatant robbery.
Yet this is very hard to try and ‘legislate’ for, and considering that bands like Zeppelin do have enough money to settle out of court there is hardly any deterrent from this behavior. Plagiarism is a game for the successful, while the smaller artist cannot take risks with over-using their influence for fear of these ever multiplying court cases.
If you like an artist’s version of someone else’s idea, then you aren’t going to stop listening to that version due to moral conviction.
Prime examples of successful artists that came out of plagiarism disputes with their integrity and popularity unscathed are George Harrison and Ed Sheeran. I think that this may be due, at least in part, to the prevalence and ambiguity of plagiarism lawsuits. They do not mean anything for the average listener anymore. If you like an artist’s version of someone else’s idea, then you aren’t going to stop listening to that version due to moral conviction.
I think that royalties from larger artists to smaller artists come from a basic principle of fairness and stand to protect emerging artists from exploitation. But when I see two reasonably successful and well-off artists like The Script and James Arthur battling it out over a rudimentary chord progression I find it difficult to become passionate.
As James Arthur put it when speaking about these allegations last year ‘It’s 2017, there’s only seven notes in music’.