Artists blurring line between influence and plagiarism leads to musical overlap

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Photo Credit: Amber Perry | Daily Texan Staff

What do Sam Smith, Michael Bolton, Johnny Cash and Vanilla Ice all have in common? They’ve all been sued for copyright infringement.

Plagiarism accusations occur every day in the music industry, yet very few lawsuits come to fruition. The complexity of proving the similarity between two pieces and that an artist has access to the allegedly infringed work is a difficult task because songwriters muddy the line between inspiration and plagiarism.

Oren Bracha, UT law professor and intellectual property expert, said the key to proving plagiarism is finding a similarity between the notes and basic composition of the piece.

“If the original recording had a very distinct element that is just in the performance and not composition, and this is the only similarity, then there’s no case to be had,” Bracha said.

UT music composition professor Bruce Pennycook said the similarities between songs are often obvious, but songs designed to become hits follow a formula, which makes the difference between influence and copying hazy.  

“Almost anyone could hear the similarities between two songs,” Pennycook said. “It’s just that there are thousands of songs with those chord progressions and sounds; simply hearing it isn’t enough. You have to have proof in melody and lyrics.”

“Blurred Lines” performers and writers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams recently forked over $7.3 million to Marvin Gaye’s family after they lost a trial over copy infringement. To ensure the jury didn’t make a decision based on superficial similarities, the court limited their evidence to stripped-down tracks of both songs. 

To avoid controversy, record labels often use software to analyze a song before releasing it. Pennycook said record companies created the program Music Information Retrieval to avoid modern music copyright cases and ensure the protection of their own music.

“The software automatically searches for copyright infringement, comparing the most basic of elements in songs,” Pennycook said. “Companies want to make sure their property is not only original, but protected from infringement by other record labels.”

The hardest part of the case, Bracha said, is proving the artist has heard the alledgedly infringed work at least once. He said many artists aren’t aware they have copied a song because it was in their subconscious.

“When courts find the case of subconscious copying, it’s often a guess at the most plausible story,"  Bracha said. "Under the rules of copyright, unintentional copying is infringement.”

George Harrison of The Beatles lost a court case to infringement over his song “My Sweet Lord,” which resembled The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” The court ruled that Harrison internalized the work, forgot he heard the song and wrote and recorded a similar tune.

Petroleum engineering freshman Shaunik Bhatte said every artist should have the right to their creation, but writers aren’t using their influences to help create original work. Rather, they mirror previously recorded music.

“It seems like the music industry doesn’t distinguish between influence and actually stealing someone’s material,” he said. “Almost every pop artist has the same sound. It would practically be impossible to distinguish the songs without lyrics. They just all sound so similar.”

Time will tell whether cases like Thicke’s and Harrison’s will continue to be brought up in today’s music industry. But writers have blurred the line between influence and plagiarism to a point that it almost feels inevitable.