Plagiarism is officially defined as taking someone else’s idea or work and passing them off as your own. Musical plagiarism can take a few different forms, and it often goes unrecognized. Someone may copy a part of a melody and “get inspired by it,” so the final result won’t sound exactly like it. Copying the motif of a song also falls within the area of plagiarism. Lyrics can be translated in between languages without giving credit to the original author.
Music copyright laws are straightforward. One must not present the work of another author as their own. Still, there are several famous cases of musicians being accused of plagiarism throughout history.
What’s the Problem with Plagiarism in Music?
Creating an original piece of music takes time, effort, and a great deal of talent. Composers and authors often get into a blocked state of mind. No matter what tricks they try, they cannot get their creativity flowing. In such a state, it’s possible to get too inspired by someone else’s work. Inexperienced musicians may also fall into the trap of unintentional plagiarism. They create a tune without being aware that it’s a copy of a song that got stuck in their mind from a long time ago.
When it comes to lyrics, it’s rather easy to make sure they aren’t completely plagiarized. All you need to do is use a free plagiarism checker website, which compares your content to text that’s already been published. But melody itself is more complicated to recognize as unique. If only one part of it has been used from another piece without authorization, you’ll be accused of plagiarism.
Famous Examples of Musical Plagiarism
1. “Shakermaker” by Oasis
“Shakermaker” was a huge hit in the summer of 1994. No one can trick the listeners, though. They quickly noticed that the opening lines were almost identical to “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” – a song performed by The New Seekers in the 1970s.
Oasis came to a settlement with the authors of the original tune. The sum wasn’t revealed, but it’s speculated to be half a million dollars.
2. “Blurred Lines” by Pharrel Williams and Robin Thicke
This collaboration quickly became recognized for its lively video launched in 2015. Marvin Gaye’s family was quick to accuse the performers of ripping off his hit from 1997, “Got To Give It Up.” The court found Williams and Thicke liable for copyright infringement. They had to pay Gaye’s family $5.3 million in damages (calculated as half of the song’s royalties).
There was a lot of drama around this case, and both Williams and Thicke aren’t proud of the song.
3. “Get Free” by Lana Del Rey
Radiohead sued Lana Del Rey over obvious similarities between her “Get Free” and their “Creep.” She claimed that she offered 40% of the song’s royalties to settle the dispute, but they refused, aiming for 100%.
“Creep” is a classic song, which listeners easily recognized in Del Rey’s work. It’s surprising to see such a creative musician falling into the trap of plagiarism. It happens more often than we assume. When the creative flow hits, it’s easy to be convinced that you’re onto something entirely original.
4. “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay
Coldplay’s fans were disappointed to find out that their song “Viva La Vida” wasn’t original. Joe Satriani accused the band of using substantial original portions of his “If I Could Fly” from 2004. The case was dismissed, but the fans never found out if a settlement was achieved. Coldplay’s members swore that they had never heard the song they were accused of plagiarizing.
To make things even more interesting, US band Creaky Boards also accused Coldplay for plagiarizing their tune. Fortunately, Coldplay proved their song to be older (with demos dating before Creaky Boards’ track was released).
We can’t help but wonder: are these settlements outside the court fair to fans and music? Copyright laws allow them, but it doesn’t feel right knowing that one of your favorite songs is not entirely original.
5. “Come Together” by John Lennon
Morris Levy, a song publisher, quickly noticed that “Come Together” was quite similar in rhythm and lyrics with “You Can’t Catch Me,” a 1956 song by Chuck Berry (who was his client). This was yet another case that was settled outside the court. Lennon agreed to record some of Levy’s songs, and then backed out. Levy tried to release the recorded track, but legal steps were taken by Lennon’s record company. Now that is a messy situation.
Plagiarism Is NOT Cool
Even when the issue occurs unintentionally and it’s quickly settled out of court, plagiarism is never cool. The sole accusation is considered a dark spot in any musician’s career. Songs and entire genders of music have been based on liberal improvisation upon someone else’s work. When musicians do that on purpose, they have to obtain approval from the copyright holder. In addition, they have to reference their source, so the audience won’t feel like they’ve been tricked.
Even the most talented musicians aren’t prone to plagiarism accusations. After finding out that some famous songs aren’t completely original, they don’t sound so impressive any longer, do they?