Copyright and plagiarism in songwriting – some case studies


Riff

The Bitter Sweet Symphony riff. How much of ‘The Last Time’ do you recognise?

Below are the slides (with playable YouTube examples) from a recent lecture I gave to BA Commercial Music at Bath Spa.

The songs we discussed in the session are;

  • My Sweet Lord (George Harrison)/He’s So Fine (Ronnie Mack)  – copyright case, 1971 and 1976
  • Live While We’re Young (One Direction, 2013)  and Should I Stay or Should I Go (The Clash, 1982) – subjective similarity
  • History of the Black Night riff – a ‘copyright orphan’ excerpt, following its history from George Gershwin in 1935 to Deep Purple in 1970 (and, some argue, to P!nk’s So What many years later)
  • Bitter Sweet Symphony (The Verve, 1997) and The Last Time (The Rolling Stones, 1965) AND The Last Time (the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, 1966).

We also talked about other famous examples, including the Puff Daddy Every Breath You Take sample, after which the students asked lots of questions relating to their own creative practice (mainly, “but why can’t I sample other songs?!” and “but really, why?”).

I’m in the process of writing up these examples into a formal research paper, which will discuss the issues relating to the privileging of melody in copyright disputes, and will be presenting a conference paper about melodic similarity at the PopMAC conference 2013 in Liverpool. Abstract here.

If the embed below doesn’t work for you, here’s a link to the Google presentation.

Comments

  1. johnnysteinberg says:

    This is really helpful Joe. As a songwriter myself, I wish there was a service whereby tracks could be submitted before publication and recording to be checked for infringement against a database. As sort of mega Shazam. Do you know of any such service. I know you have done forensic analysis for copyright disputes. Good health and best wishes,
    Johnny Steinberg

    • No I don’t think such a thing exists, because each case has to be analysed on its own merits, and circumstances vary so greatly. Contrary to what some songwriters think, there is no ‘allowed’ musical threshold of copying. There is only case law and subjective similarity. Objective similarity is arguably impossible. The challenge of understanding and defining what infringes and what doesn’t is really what the current academic work is all about.

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