Close to the Edge: investigating songwriting’s ‘plagiarism threshold’

Joe Bennett, Boston Conservatory at Berklee

[Presented at IASPM 2017, 26 June 2017]

Wicked.png

Stephen Schwartz’s score for ‘Wicked’ quotes 7 pitches from ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’… but does it infringe a copyright?

Here is the abstract, with references, for the academic paper I presented at the IASPM 2017 conference in Kassel, Germany. At the moment it’s just abstract, slides and references. If it ever turns into a full paper I’ll upload it to this website with the rest.

Abstract: The songwriter Stephen Schwartz once described his ‘Unlimited Theme’ (from ‘Wicked’) as a musical joke, using as it does the first seven pitches from ‘Over The Rainbow’.Schwartz believed that by limiting the number of copied pitches, he was evading an accusation of plagiarism. Schwartz’s belief in a legally defined plagiarism threshold represents a common misconception among musicians; there is a similarly widespread myth that copyright law permits a specific number of seconds of audio sampling (this has explicitly been contradicted in US case law). But borrowing and adaptation is a common form of creativity, and there is a real risk that if creators misidentify the line between influence and plagiarism, they might either inhibit their own creative freedoms, or inadvertently infringe copyright. This paper discusses the mythical plagiarism threshold, using examples from copyright case law, interviews with creators, and comparative analysis of musically similar works to explore the question “how much is too much”?

Download pdf of slides (or click image below)

Slides

References:

  • Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 383 F.3d 390 (6th Cir. 2004)’. Harvard Law Review 118 (4): 1355–62. doi:10.2307/4093384.
  • Cronin, Charles Patrick Desmond. 2017. ‘Seeing Is Believing: The Ongoing Significance of Symbolic Representations of Musical Works in Copyright Infringement Disputes’. Social Science Research Network. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2967590.
  • Demers, Joanna. 2006. Steal This Music – How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity. Athens : University of Georgia Press,.
  • Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., 780 F. Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1991)
  • Schwartz, Stephen. 2004. Wicked’s Musical Themes Interview by Carol de Giere. http://www.musicalschwartz.com/wicked-musical-themes.htm.
  • Three Boys Music v. Michael Bolton 212 F.3d 477. 2000 477. 9th Cir.

 

[ABSTRACT] Appropriation and Copyrightability in Music Copyright

I Hate These Blurred Lines: Wrongful Appropriation and Copyrightability in Music Copyright

Academic/copyright post: here’s an abstract (pdf) of a paper that I’ll be presenting with Prof Wendy Gordon next week at Boston University Law School.

James Newton

Flautist and composer James Newton, whose work ‘Choir’ was sampled by the Beastie Boys in’ ‘Pass The Mic’.

This is based in part on an earlier paper that we presented at the Art of Record Production Conference in Aalborg, Denmark in December 2016, a draft of which is embedded below with voiceover and music examples. As this is an academic paper about music copyright, it contains musical excerpts from the original audio recording. My first attempt to embed the video resulted in an automatic takedown (academic fair use YouTube dispute is in progress), so I’m trying again with a Screencast embed. Because the video represents commentary and (not for profit) academic research, I’m continuing to claim fair use. Let’s see how long the audio survives!

Abstract: We have two concerns with music infringement trials: The first concern is the process by which juries decide questions of whether a defendant copied too much from a plaintiff’s work. (This is the inquiry sometimes known as “wrongful appropriation” or “substantial similarity”.) This paper discusses the challenges of methodology in forensic musicology, and the musical and psychological difficulties of applying the ‘substantial similarity’ test fairly and objectively. (Bonadio, 2016; Gordon, 2015). We present an analysis of three disputes, with comparative audio examples – The Isley Brothers/Michael Bolton (2001); Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams/Marvin Gaye (2015); and Randy California/Led Zeppelin (2016).
Our second concern addresses copyright classifications, in particular, the contested relationship between the creative decisions that give rise to copyrights in “musical works” (compositions) and the creative decisions that give rise to “sound recordings” (sounds as rendered). We suggest that overlap between the two is common and should be better recognized. To illustrate the potential compositional contributions of performers and sound engineers, we utilize audio examples from Newton v. Diamond and other disputes.

[Read more…]

Did Sam Smith copy ‘Earth Song’ in ‘Writing’s On The Wall’?

Sam SmithI was interviewed this week by the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper about the alleged similarities between Sam Smith’s new James Bond movie theme song ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ and Michael Jackson’s Earth Song. This blog post is a more detailed version of that analysis.

[If you’re wondering why The Carpenters appear in the above playlist, all will be explained shortly].

Lots of people around the web have been pointing out that the end of WOTW’s verse makes them want to go straight into the chorus of MJ’s ‘Earth Song’, and on listening to the tracks it’s easy to hear what they mean. It’s interesting, though, that although the ‘feeling’ of the end of WOTW’s verse is reminiscent of Earth Song for some listeners, there are only actually three notes that have the exact same pitch – and these notes are not placed at the same point in the bar.

The songs are in different keys – Earth Song is in Ab minor and WOTW is in F minor. When comparing melodies, it’s helpful to ‘normalise’ this difference by notating both songs in the same key, so that any similarities or differences are more visually apparent. Here’s the comparative/normalised transcription.

Earth Song (top) vs Writing's On The Wall (bottom), normalised to Ab minor for comparison purposes. No two notes line up perfectly, and yet the similarity is apparent to many people.

Earth Song (top) vs Writing’s On The Wall (bottom), normalised to Ab minor for comparison purposes. No two notes line up perfectly, and yet the similarity is apparent to many people (click image for a larger version).

So, if there are no notes that are exactly the same (in terms of pitch, rhythmic placement and harmonic context), why are so many listeners crying foul?

There are two areas of apparent similarity. The phrases in the penultimate bar of each song’s verse, highlighted in the red rectangle above, both have 8 syllables and have similar rhythmic scansion (and there’s no more use in runnin’ / did you ever stop to notice). But the section that everyone is talking about is the rising phrase ending on a B flat note (this is something I gotta face / this crying Earth this weeping shore?). These respective phrases, although they have only three pitches in common (with different rhythmic placement), give an impression of similarity because of the way the phrase ascends to the strong Bb note, with the same underlying dominant chord (in the normalised key of Abm, Eb major).

The songs also feature what we might call ‘surface similarities’ – that is, aspects of the arrangement or performance that appear in many other songs, but are combined in each work in the same way. They are both sung in the higher register of the male voice; they are performed at a similar tempo (Earth Song is around 6BPM and Writing’s On The Wall is around 65BPM). They are also both have a sweeping, epic quality and a lyric where the protagonist expresses some form of regret. There are of course many songs that feature these elements, but in combination they contribute to a subjective impression of similarity.

There is one other fragment of similarity, and interestingly listeners don’t seem to have picked this up to the same extent, despite the notes lining up exactly. WOTW’s chorus drops down dynamically at [01:28] and at this point the phrase ‘how do I breathe’ has the equivalent notes, syllable count and rhythmic scansion as bar 2 of Earth Song’s verse ‘what about rain’ [0:51 in the full length version]. The rhythms for this four-note section are identical, with identical pitches of Eb, Db, Cb and Db. The underlying chord on beat 3 is different, but the melodic similarity, for a brief moment, may be apparent to the listener. Here’s the relevant section, key-normalised as before.

Earth Song (excerpt from verse 1 at [0:51] shares a four-note melodic phrase with Writing's On The Wall (chorus 1, from [01:28]), albeit with different harmonic context on the half-bar.

Earth Song (excerpt from verse 1 at [0:51] shares a four-note melodic phrase with Writing’s On The Wall (chorus 1, from [01:28]), albeit with different harmonic context on the half-bar.

But methodology is all in comparative music analysis, and it can be abused. If you look hard enough, and work with small enough fragments, you can find similarity everywhere. In the Spotify playlist above, listen to the strings intro in WOTW followed by the first verse of Superstar by the Carpenters. Three notes of G, F and C below, in an F minor tonality. Coincidence? Er, yes.

Music analysis can only highlight the similarities and differences; it’s impossible to see inside the mind of a songwriter, and any accusation of melodic plagiarism usually has to demonstrate quite a high level of similarity between the works. There are melody similarities between WoTW and ES but there are also many differences; these melodic fragments and production/arrangement choices will certainly have appeared in other songs. Which leads us to the really interesting question – if no musical elements are identical, but the combinations of elements are similar enough to invoke allusion to an earlier work, might we describe the act of combining those elements as creative? Can composing consist simply of bringing together pre-existing ideas? Might we characterise all creativity in this way? (Arthur Koestler thought so).

Were Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes influenced by Michael Jackson? Quite probably – many great pop songwriters are. Would they have been familiar with Earth Song? Almost certainly – it was a worldwide hit and remains a classic. But is this an example of deliberate plagiarism? I’m not so sure. It depends on what you mean by ‘original’.

And what you mean by ‘composing’.

And what you mean by ‘copying’.


Copyright note for transcription excerpts: I claim fair dealing exceptions for the purposes of research, criticism, review and news reporting. 

I feel fine. Friends – watch your step…

Forensic Musicology – interview in Danish broadsheet

Screenshot of newspaper article

Article from this week’s Weekendavisen. Click the image to download Danish version.

I was interviewed recently for the Danish broadsheet newspaper Weekendavisen, which ran a feature on musical plagiarism, referencing Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. The text below is a (partly Google-powered) translation from Danish. For any native Danish speakers reading this, the original will probably make more sense – download here: Weekendavisen article 24 October 2014.

Slørede grænser (Blurred Boundaries)

[translated from Danish. Written by Anders Boas. Reproduced in translation by kind permission of Weekendavisen.]

The same way that a house is made ​​of bricks, wood and nails, a piece of music is build of pitches, harmonies and rhythms. But the same way that very few people see each brick in a house, it is a minority that hear the individual notes when listening to the latest hit. [Read more…]

Lana Del Love Theme #plagiarism? #songwriting #cryptomnesia

First 8 pitches. Lana is in Bbm. Nino is in Gm. Otherwise the same, at least in pitch terms. Could be cryptomnesia. Thanks to the eagle-eared Simon Troup of Digital Music Art for finding this one.

 

 

Stairway to Heaven and Taurus – radio panel discussion

Stairway to Heaven famously uses a chromatically descending A minor chord pattern, but was it too similar to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental ‘Taurus’?

I appeared on Voice Of Russia radio this week (the Brendan Cole show), talking about the Stairway to Heaven/Taurus  allegations of plagiarism. It was a long and wide-ranging panel discussion, also covering Oasis, Deep Purple, Coldplay, Gershwin and others. The panelists were:

  • Johnny Sharp, music writer for Mojo and Q magazine,
  • Andy Millmore, head of Litigation at Harbottle & Lewis, and has acted for music companies, book publishers, as well as other clients.
  • Chris Fielden, writer
  • Joe Bennett, dean of the School of Music and the Performing Arts at Bath Spa University and head of the annual UK Songwriting Festival.

Below are some quotations from the full 30-minute discussion. The podcast can be downloaded here (28MB) or press play below to hear it in your browser.

——–

JB: “The whole issue basically hinges around a four-bar piece of music played using a descending minor chord pattern…
“Yes, I believe he [Jimmy Page] copied it. […] It’s a riff he had access to, it’s a riff he heard recently and it’s not the kind of thing that would be terribly similar through coincidence.  The issue is whether the thing being copied was in fact owned by Randy California in the first place. Can you copyright a minor descending chromatically in half bars?”

AM: “Actually, I’m not sure that I completely agree with the way Joe has characterised the question here because I think it’s pretty clear that any musical work, any literal work which it’s a fairly low threshold of originality does belong as a matter of copyright to whoever created it. If it is entirely commonplace and standard and gone before then there’s nothing knew and original. But once you hit that low threshold you’re the copyright owner in that work…
“And then the two questions become – one is, was there as a matter of fact copying? From what we know of the evidence in this case is suggestive of the fact that there could have been copying or maybe subconscious copying – a concept that was recognised in the George Harrison ‘My Sweet Lord’ case where it was found that Harrison didn’t know that he was copying but nonetheless he was subconsciously…
“So let’s assume that Randy California gets them on that, and then the question is – is it a substantial copy? And that’s the legal test – is there a substantial reproduction here? And then you start getting into quality questions about what has been taken, what has been saved and what’s been reproduced.
“This is actually a very difficult question… I think the original could well be owned by Randy California notwithstanding that is a descending minor chord pattern because it’s the particular minor chord pattern in which his copyright subsists. Has that substantially been taken by somebody else?”

CF: “With the Led Zeppelin example, to me it sounds way too similar to be regarded as just gaining inspiration. The Randy California version actually sounds like a Led Zeppelin song played wrong and I know it’s Jimmy Page that’s supposed to have copied it – I think the line should be drawn where getting inspiration is a theme or a feeling, but when you actually take the riff of the song I think that should be regarded as plagiarism.”

JS: “The only people that have really been open about it [plagiarism] is someone like Noel Gallagher – he’s always been like ‘oh I like that’, ‘I love that’… And he got nailed for it for a song which was left off their second album, which was very similar to ‘Uptight’ by Stevie Wonder. It was originally included on ‘What’s The Story Morning Glory’ and had to be taken out…”
“…There are not a lot of musicians who do it. It’s incredibly common for musicians to be accused it [plagiarism].
“You look at any Amazon review of an album and someone will say – ‘I can’t believe that they get away with this track, it must be obvious to anyone with ears that this is a complete rip-off!’ Everyone thinks they hear echoes of another track… And a lot of the time musicians hear that.”

“A few years ago Joe Satriani – the rock guitarist, had sued Coldplay because he claimed that they had taken a little snippet of melody from one of his endless self-indulgent guitar noodles. You listen to it and really it was like ‘mate, you’re dreaming.’
“This is a man who like a lot of musicians has a very large ego and believes he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He sees a band like Coldplay who get a certain amount of critical acclaim, although not everywhere, But Satriani obviously looked at that and thought – ‘I see my influence everywhere, they’re all ripping me off!’ It’s amore in his head that reality.”

“In regards to Led Zeppelin doing this – if hadn’t been Jimmy Page I might have been prepared to say – well yeah, it’s just a minor chord pattern. It’s not an uncommon pattern of chords – the descending pattern of chords, and even the fingerpicking – the sort of 1-2-3-4 is hardly uncommon in the folk tradition. The fact is, Jimmy Page has form – a lot of form, when it comes appropriating other people’s work. Now whether that would count in the court of law is highly debatable, no doubt.”

JB: “Well coincidences can take place and in the case of the Joe Satriani track I think that idea starting on a minor ninth chord with the melody and then over the C chord – that was the melodic fragment he was picking up on. My personal view is that it is not beyond the realm of coincidence that two composers separately could come up with what is a relatively simple harmonic and melodic idea over two phrases.
“The challenge with this kind of issue, and particularly the Randy California issue, is that everybody hears music subjectively.”
“When a listener hears a piece of music they’re listening to quite a lot of information going into their brain, not just the thing musicologists write about typically – melody, harmonic context, i.e. the underlying chords and that which could be notated, but they’re also hearing the production, they’re hearing the instrumentation.
“So for example, had I played you the Randy California track using a brass band arrangement, it would be technically the same composition and the same piece of intellectual property in terms of music publishing, but it would sound completely different because it would be played by a brass band.. So, the reason that a lot of people hear similarities can be influenced by something as simple as instrumentation, and because I’m sitting here with an acoustic guitar and have played both examples on the same acoustic guitar back to back, that rather enhances their similarity as composition in terms of listener perception.”

CF: “The Beatles in particular came up with very-very original songs for their time and had a very unique sound. While they might borrow ideas and get influence from rock and roll and other stuff that was around at that time, they definitely put their own stamp on it. I don’t think that you could regard what they did as plagiarising, but it was taking influence and producing original music.”

JB: “A lot of my academic research is investigating the psychology of the creative process – exactly how do people come up with melodies? There’s a lot of romantic mystery attached to it in the mainstream media and of course songwriters maybe have a bit of a vested interest in mythologizing the process in that way.”
“Every creator of music has heard previous music and is creating new material in that context. So when I interview songwriters they tell me that it happens all the time that they accidently, inadvertently or even deliberately compose fragments for their own song that they’ve taken from other songs… But normally that’s avoidance of plagiarism – a normal part of the creative process. You just go – oh that sounds a bit similar, I’ll tweak it until it doesn’t.”

AM: “The issue that we come across again and again is the dichotomy between an idea and the form of expression of an idea… And you see that in all forms of copyright works, it’s not just music.
“But at what point is what has been taken – the inspiration, as against down at a level where it’s the particular way in which that idea is expressed. It’s a real problem for the courts to grapple with any particular case and therefore it’s a real problem for artists and music companies when they’re looking at issues like this…”
“I think the answer ‘I wasn’t aware’ is probably not a defence… A court can find that you were copying and reproducing and that’s the test – were you as a matter of fact copying without intending to, maybe even without realising?
“The answer seems to be yes you can. You’ve got to have pretty compelling evidence to show that that particular track was around so much and you’d heard it so often that it was somewhere there in the back of your mind that you’d be regurgitating it without even realising…”

JS: “When you combine a musical pattern and also a lyric which quite often Led Zeppelin have done then that’s when you haven’t really got too much of an argument. Again it was something that Noel Gallagher has done several times – the song ‘Whatever’ goes ‘I’m free to do whatever I want’ and Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band said that he [Neil] basically stole that from ‘I’m free to be an idiot’. As far as I know Neil Innes now has a credit on that one, along with the other ones that Noel Gallagher has given credits away to. If Neil Gallagher was going to steal the melody, he might have gotten away with it, but to actually steal the first two words? Then you’re in trouble.”

CF: “Most times when you come up with a song that you actually want to borrow a part of then you approach their publisher and ask permission to do so. I’ve done that before in bands that I’ve been in – we did a cover of Mr Sandman which is obviously a very old classic song. We approached the publishers and they approached the writers and they gave us permission to use it.”
“…We basically did a cover of the entire song but did it in a very different way to the original. The original is all very happy-clappy and we were doing a darker version of it. So we sent them a recording and they wrote back and said – yeah, you’ve got permission to use it… And they would get a percentage of royalties from it.”

AM: “It’s an expensive thing to do as a claimant and it’s an expensive thing to defend as a defendant. And I hate to say it, being a lawyer, but it is one of the areas where typically the people who really succeed are the lawyers and therefore it lends itself to early resolution.”

JB: “It’s all in the ear of the listener isn’t it? It’s dependent on the way people receive it – to some people things will sound very similar, to other people not.”