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Music plagiarism is the use of copyrighted music or lyrics without the consent of the legal copyright holder. Plagiarism is the legal term for copying another person’s or an entity's creative work and passing it off as original material. This generally is considered a violation of ethical standards and might be punishable by law in some areas. In the field of popular music, many legal actions have resulted from claims of music plagiarism. In the late 20th century, the advent of music sampling further complicated the issue.
Like other creative works, music is protected by copyright laws in many countries as well as by the international Berne Convention. Most music is protected for the life of the creator plus several decades. In practice, the copyrights to many popular songs are owned by recording companies, not by the artists themselves. These copyrights can be quite lucrative for years after the song’s initial success. Music companies will therefore vigorously protect these copyrights in instances of music plagiarism, whether real or perceived.
Like other art forms, music is made of many individual elements, and it is often inspired by prior works of art. A simple progression of notes in a song can seem very similar to what is heard in other familiar songs, but this does not necessarily mean that the work has been plagiarized. The judges who oversee music plagiarism cases must weigh these factors when making their decisions. Some claimants are simple opportunists seeking a portion of the fortunes made by successful songs. This only makes it harder to decide those cases where actual plagiarism has taken place.
Music plagiarism cases have taken place since the copyright laws were first written. For example, in 1940, a music publisher claimed that Walt Disney had stolen the tune “Someday My Prince Will Come,” which was used in the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The judge later found that this accusation was without merit. In 1971, by contrast, former Beatles musician George Harrison was accused of stealing the tune of “My Sweet Lord” from a 1960s hit record called “He’s So Fine.” A judge found Harrison guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” — that is, he genuinely believed he had originated the tune, but he was liable for damages nonetheless.
In the 1980s and 1990s, rappers and other musicians began “sampling” previously recorded music for their own records. Although these musicians claimed they were creating new works with these samples, recording companies and artists quickly instigated legal action. In 1991, the legal case Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros set the precedent that sampling was a copyright violation. In 1998, the composers of the hit song “Bitter Sweet Symphony” lost their rights to the music after it was discovered they had sampled a Rolling Stones song without permission. Whether sampling is truly music plagiarism has remained a subject of lively debate.
Music plagiarism is one of the more confusing things to study because there seems to be no clear definition of what is plagiarism and what is not. For example, take the George Harrison case mentioned in the article. It is hard to consider that to be an example of plagiarism when the first two Led Zeppelin albums are full of modified blues standards that the group claimed as its own works.
What is the difference between those two examples? That's hard to say. Throw in a few more examples and the issue becomes more murky. For example, both "Holidays in the Sun" by the Sex Pistols and "In the City" by the Jam share an almost identical main guitar riff. Which one was stolen and which one wasn't? Were both dreamed up independently of each other?
Confusing? You bet.