Musical Plagiarism

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Every day, people are listening to music of different styles and genres. Everyone has the own favorite musician, which he\she prefers the most. Unfortunately, not everybody knows that sometimes the preferred musician (band) can use another author's music. People are significantly influenced by the world and life around them. Songwriters are not an exception too. Therefore, musical plagiarism can be of two types: accidental (also known as subconscious) and conscious (the special copying of melodies, motifs, chord progressions or arrangements to receive commercial profits from them). However, the question is where the measure between being only influenced by a song and its plagiarism is (Ugwu).

According to the dictionary, the definition of plagiarism is the following: "The act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts, ideas, or passages there from, and passing the material off as one's own creation" ("Plagiarism"). The main concepts, regulations, and norms of musical creativity and ownership have changed many times through the history. Therefore, the question of plagiarism in music can be analyzed from various perspectives: juridical, aesthetic, musicological, cultural, and historical. The problem of plagiarism is known and important in the United States for approximately two last centuries. The first known plagiarism case in the US happened between William E. Millett and William Snowden in 1844 (Wagner 352). Till that time, American courts had heard hundreds of cases from song-writers (music-writers) that wanted to protect their compositions from thieves and plagiarism of all stripes. Courts have identified the cases of plagiarism as an abuse of the Copyright Law and the violations of the Intellectual Property of a concrete composer. The song-writers (music-writers) automatically have the right for the own original music (lyrics) after they officially have recorded or registered their song, according to the American Copyright Act of 1976. It has stated that it protects all "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device" (U. S. Government 8). This Act is a main regulatory law that provides main rights to copyright holders for their intellectual property. Moreover, to protect privacy and security of ownership for music, songs, sound recordings, and other original works a person can register them in the US Copyright Office. The registration has provided a number of benefits to any musician in the legal protection of his\her property rights for the whole or part of the song in the court. Therefore, people have all possibilities to protect their musical compositions (and other creative expressions) under the current American law. Nowadays, music is the most protected and licensed sphere of art).

 

From one side, composers use the special well-known music patterns to create their music for hundreds of years. Therefore, music is limited by a small number of notes that is possible to use for creating a melody. There are only 12 notes in the octave. Therefore, it causes the fact that some song-writers can mistakenly or subconsciously apply the melody from the other song, even if they never heard it before. By the way, there are billions of various combinations of pitches and rhythms, different tones and intervals, and ways to change the notes to sharp or flat type (major or minor modes). Humans are lucky that it is forbidden to own the notes themselves by anyone. It occurs the same way as it is banned to be an owner of a dancing movement or a writer cannot own the specific or ordinary word. It has allowed creating a unique melody to everyone and producing more and more original musical compositions every year.

From the other side, there are a number of cases when singers or bands used in their musical compositions similar melodies, rhythms, chord progressions, samplings and even lyrics. Actually, in this case, these musical works can be considered as plagiarism. A famous musical observer Simon Frith has stated that "Rock history has always been about musicians finding their own voices in the process of trying unsuccessfully to sound like someone else" (Reyes 100). However, to protect the ownership for a musical composition in the court, a plaintiff should reasonably demonstrate that two songs have a significant similarity. Moreover, an accused individual has an access to the musical composition being plagiarized (an access is a point of view whether a defendant ever has had a possibility to hear the plaintiff's song before writing the allegedly illegal composition). Moreover, musicologists are often invited to be the experts and help jurors to analyze sheet music of two songs and find out if there is a plagiarism case or not. A Copyright lawyer Paul Fakler has stressed the difficulties of plagiarism cases: "With novels and movies, it's often easier for jurors to sort of cut to the chase and tell whether the thing has been copied or not. Music cases quickly turn into a battle of the experts" (Ugwu). Therefore, it is a long-term and very complicated process for the court to find out a just decision in the plagiarism issue. Despite this fact, there were a number of plagiarism or copyright matters with the worldwide famous bands. Few most significant ones among them were the following cases:

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  • Led Zeppelin vs Willie Dixon - there were a number of cases when Led Zeppelin took its music from the blues records. Moreover, the band borrowed a guitar riff for the hit song "Stairway to Heaven" from the composition "Taurus" recorded by Spirit band. However, the most famous matter was when they borrowed lyrics for the track "Whole Lotta Love" from Dixon's one called "You Need Love". After all, they decided to input Willie Dixon into co-writers of this composition to escape judicial procedures in the court.
  • Crazy Town vs Red Hot Chili Peppers - is a perfect example of plagiarism in music. Crazy Town band stole a motif for the most famous song "Butterfly" from Red Hot Chili Peppers' composition "Pretty Little Dirty", which was written in 1989.
  • Metallica vs Excel -in 1991, Kirk Hammett wrote one of the best guitar riffs in the world for the song "Enter Sandman". It was included in the "Black Album" and became famous all over the world. However, there was a little confusion, as it had been partly taken from the track "Tapping into the Emotional Void" recorded by the American band Excel in 1989.
  • Metallica vs Jimmi Hendrix - the second famous plagiarism case was with a new hit "The Unforgiven II" recorded in 1997. This song is very similar to Jimi Hendrix's song "A Merman I Should Turn to Be" released -29 years earlier in 1983. Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield claimed that it was a mix of their compositions "The Unforgiven" and "Fade to Black". However, if Hendrix was alive then Metallica would not definitely escape a fair judgment.
  • Coldplay vs Joe Satriani - Coldplay's hit "Viva la Vida" is as well considered a plagiarism. Joe Satriani reasonably claimed that his song "If I Could Fly" is very similar to it. However, his statement did not reach the court, as Coldplay's managers decided to offer Satriani a good sum of money compensation for the composition in order to avoid serious trials.
  • Nirvana vs Killing Joke - the US grunge band Nirvana released the single "Come as You Are" in 1992. From the beginning, Kurt Cobain was against the release of the single. The reason is that the guitar riff in it resembled too much the composition of Killing Joke's "Eighties". However, the representatives of the record label "Gold Mountain Records" persuaded Nirvana's musicians to release it. They knew that this song would have a commercial success. There was a copyright claim from Killing Joke. However, later, he decided not to send the lawsuit because of financial and personal reasons.
  • Radiohead vs The Hollies - the iconic rock band Radiohead also was caught in plagiarism. Their first and still popular hit "Creep" has a similar chord progression with the Hollies' composition "The Air that I Breathe." To manage this situation without additional court's expenses, it was decided to add Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood (The Hollies) to the co-writers of the track "Creep".

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Rappers invited a new type of plagiarism known as sampling in the 1980s and 1990s. They widely used the previously recorded music of other artists for their hits. However, musicians stated that they had created unique compositions on the base of samples. Sampling is considered as a copyright violation by the court. It is forbidden to use them without a special permission. For example, M.C. Hammer was obliged to pay $16 million, as he illegally used the song "Oh-Oh, You Got the Shining" composed by Christian Kevin Christian as a base to his composition "Here Comes the Hammer" (Pant).

Finally, it is necessary to state that the illegal copyright of music would be a problem not only of the past and present, but of the future too. Despite many musical and legal issues and problems, some serious financial and reputational damages, song-writers would most-likely continue to use plagiarism in music. It helped them to earn millions of dollars (for example, songs "Creep", "Enter Sandman", and others) or to become a worldwide famous band only due to one song (as it happened to Crazy Town and its song "Butterfly").

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