Musical Copycats: Plagiarism VS Sampling

Elouise Spencer - 24 August 2018

Throughout the centuries, amateur and professional musicians have inspired, mimicked, and copied one another. Despite this, original compositions were prized above all.

Times have changed, and while the copycat game is still being played, it seems Auto-Tune and a sample or two is all that is needed to win an award. If some reports are accurate, singers do not even need to use their own voices in their music anymore (here’s looking at you, Britney).

This is not to say technology is not good for music. It has been good for the online casino industry in New Zealand, but even there, it is used responsibly – and if a band’s music is used in pokies powered by leading providers, it is done so with valid licensing. 

What’s the Difference? 

The line between sampling and downright plagiarism appears to be a fine one, but copyright and intellectual property rights laws are quite clear on the matter. Using a sample of another musician’s work in one’s own is not necessarily plagiarism. It all comes down to who gets the credit for the music.

To put it simply, musical plagiarism is when a singer or band imitates the music of another, and passes it off as their own. Changing 1 or 2 notes or chords does not give the new performers a right to call it their own work. At least in US courts, if one performer accuses another of plagiarising their work, they need to prove both that the accused heard the song, and that the 2 songs in question share structural elements.

Famous Cases of Plagiarism

With a sound and stage presence entirely the band’s own, Led Zeppelin justifiably occupies an honoured spot in the rock and roll pantheon. In the 60s and 70s, the band was known for flirting with the occult, and even credited otherworldly spirits as the source of some of their music.

Unless those spirits were named Willie Dixon, Ritchie Valens, Jake Holmes, and Howlin’ Wolf, the band was talking nonsense. Arc Music has taken the rock band to court for copyright infringement over their use of part of Willie Dixon’s Bring It On Home in their song of the same title. They were also taken to court by Dixon over their use of lyrics from his song You Need Love in their hit single, Whole Lotta Love.

This was followed by lawsuits brought against the band by Ritchie Valens’ publisher over their use of elements of his song Ooh! My Head in their track, Boogie With Stu. As if that was not enough, Yardbirds member Jake Holmes took guitarist Jimmy Page to court over Dazed and Confused, which Holmes claimed was copied from a song of his called – wait for it – Dazed and Confused. You can’t make this up.

Ex-Beatle George Harrison was also fingered as a plagiarist. He was sued for copying the Chiffon’s single He’s So Fine in his song, My Sweet Lord.

The Beach Boys made a fantastic career for themselves as clean-cut, All-American, crooning surfers. Unfortunately, the image took a bit of a dent when they were accused of plagiarising Chuck Berry’s song Sweet Little 16 in their smash hit, Surfin’ USA. There cannot have been too much love lost between the musicians, as Berry reportedly told one of the Beach Boys that he was a fan of their song.

Hailing from Oxford, UK, Radiohead smashed onto the music scene with their first single, Creep. Its crunching guitars and angst-ridden lyrics struck an immediate chord, and gained the band legions of fans. And then got them taken to court by none other than the Hollies, who claimed the 4 chords that went into Creep were the very same chords used in their single, the Air That I Breathe. Radiohead lost the case, and had to credit the has-been rockers.

Canadian rapper Drake has also been accused of being a copycat, but rather than using another’s music without permission or acknowledgement, he copied visual art. According to reports, the background in his Hotline Bling music video is almost identical to light installations created by James Turrell, a 72-year-old artist of whom Drake is a fan.

Is Copycatting the Future?

Love it or hate it, it looks like Auto-Tune, sampling, and copying in music is here to stay. We can only hope that, sooner or later, musicians, producers, and listeners once again learn the value of original work.

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