Here’s a fun bit of arguable plagiarism from Sting.
Every Breath I Take (Gene Pitney) – excerpt from [0:58] G Only with every little breath I take Em Only with every little step I make C Only with every little beat of my heart D And every single minute I’m awake
Here’s the Gene Pitney original from 1961, which was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and produced by Phil Spector, charting at #42 in the UK. Listen from [0:58].
And here’s the 1983 recording of Every Breath You Take by The Police
And of course Every Breath You Take uses the chord sequence from Ben E King’s Stand By Me (co-written with Leiber and Stoller and also released in 1961), which goes as follows (transposed into G major for convenience of comparison).
Chord sequence for Stand By Me and (some of) Every Breath You Take (in G)
| G | G | Em | Em | C | D | G | G |
Even if this is plagiarism, it is not necessarily infringement of copyright, because it’s almost impossible for copyright to subsist in chord sequence on its own, but the similarity is interesting nonetheless. The Pitney/Sting examples use very similar lyrics with the equivalent chord change in the same rhythmic placement (that is, the downbeat of the bar).
And while we’re talking about the EBYT/Stand By Me chords, here’s Olly Murs playing the same 8-bar chord sequence in D major at a cheerful doo-wop 165BPM for his 2011 hit Dance With Me Tonight (co-written with Steve Robson and Claude Kelly).
Chord sequence for Every Breath You Take, Stand By Me and Dance With Me Tonight (in D)
| D | D | Bm | Bm | G | A | D | D |
Are these similarities coincidental? I’d say probably not, particularly in the case of the Olly Murs track, given that he was clearly setting out to achieve a 50s/60s feel in the song, judging by the production. In Sting’s case it’s more difficult to take a view, given that the I-vi-IV-V chord sequence is so well used in songwriting, and EBYT isn’t a huge variation on these four chords’ rhythmic placements in the 8 bar phrase. But the lyric similarity does suggest that it’s possible that Sting was subconsciously influenced by the Goffin/King song. And it’s not impossible that the 10-year-old Sting would have heard Gene Pitney on the radio in 1961.
I like to analyse these similarities not to suggest copyright infringement, but because I’m interested in the ‘thresholds of originality’ in popular music, and how copyright protects some but not all of the musical content in a song or track. It’s OK to copy some things, like chord sequences, production aesthetics, and lyric ‘memes’, but not others; plagiarism case law seems to favour melody over other elements. And of course plagiarism becomes exponentially more obvious the greater the number of similar elements in combination. The Pitney/Sting example is interesting because it combines similarities of lyric content, chord choices, some aspects of melodic phrasing, and scansion, including the placement of particular words on the barline. We might say that the combination of musical elements for artistic effect *is* the ‘skill and labour’ of a composer. This raises some philosophical questions, such as “who decides when a creative decision is original?”, “how original does a creative decision have to be before it can be considered to be someone’s Intellectual Property?”, and “how many extant ideas have to be combined before the combination itself can be considered creative?”.