Photo credit: Kayle Johnson

Is there something off with our attitude towards plagiarism in contemporary music? Luke Sharkey investigates the ongoing controversy and complicated grey area surrounding inspiration and plagiarism.

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ALMOST every musician, budding and established, has been there. Halfway through working on a new song and you suddenly realise that you’ve just been rewriting that Blur track you were enjoying yesterday.

The fine line between inspiration and plagiarism has troubled musicians since the dawn of mass-produced recorded music. Being able to take someone’s music home and study it means being able to learn from it. After learning a song to completion a musician can then use parts of it in his or her own compositions. This ‘magpie’ method of taking the shiniest parts of the greatest songs has aided many great songwriters in the development of their own hits and masterpieces. Take the great British Invasion bands of the sixties — borrowed riffs from American blues-musicians were as common as flared jeans.

This does not only apply to rock’n’roll. Fusion genres, such as Reggae, were formed by using a combination of ideas from traditional music like Mento and modern Western RnB music. Musicians have always taken what’s come before and used it in their own writings. It is through that shared knowledge that certain forms of music evolve.

So at what point does inspiration stop and plagiarism begin? One growing, and worrying, phenomenon of contemporary music is the continuing allegations of one artist outright stealing from another.

Big cases are not hard to find. Recently, Led Zeppelin won a court case in which it was alleged that they had plagiarised Spirit’s ‘Taurus’ when writing their most famous song ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

Closer to home, Hozier was also recently accused of borrowing from Feist’s ‘How Come You Never Go There?’ on his breakthrough single ‘Take Me To Church’. Although the accusation, made by musician Chilly Gonzales in a YouTube video, was intended as a joke it wasn’t received as such. Universal Music’s legal team are, in fact, at this time preparing to take legal action against Mr. Gonzales for defamation.

Perhaps it’s time we all adjusted our attitude towards these cases.

The main conflict seems to be around the idea of a musician’s intellectual property. If an artist writes and releases a song it is deemed to be their intellectual property. After all, it was that artist who put pen to paper or plectrum to string. So if one artist were to plagiarise another, they would be said to be stealing their intellectual property.

There may, however, be a flaw in this idea. Arguments have been made challenging the idea of ownership in music. After all, music is not a self-contained unit. It exists within a context of pre-existing content. Every song that is written is part of a long, and inextricably interconnected, lineage of songs before it. The concept of tonality means that every musician is working with essentially the same limited materials. Therefore it follows that different material will inevitably and eventually overlap.

So what then of the moral issue surrounding plagiarism?

One could wonder why it is deemed wrong in the first place to borrow from other artists for their own work. It seems unlikely that many of the artists taking legal action against others are doing so because they care about protecting the sanctity of their art. Nor is it likely they want the recognition of having ‘written it first’. It might be a little cynical, but it seems like money may be the real motivational factor here. After all, a case settled privately and quickly is a fantastic way to make some easy money in an industry known for being economically grueling.

Fortunately, it is not always as black and white as that. There are definitely cases where plagiarism laws have protected small artists from being bullied by big ones and their labels. This, for example, was seen in the recent case involving Justin Bieber and Casey Dienel over a vocal hook used in Bieber’s hit ‘Sorry’. It was never confirmed, but anybody with ears can tell you that, at the very least, Ms. Dienel’s vocal hook was sampled numerous times throughout the track.

It is important to note that producer Skrillex never cleared that sample with Dienel or her team. Such acts could go unpunished, without laws in place to protect artists from becoming victims of plagiarism and theft.

Bearing all of this in mind, how should we feel about cases of plagiarism in music? It is important, if not crucial, that the listening public recognise the difference between cases that protect artists and those that are only a means by which an artist or label can get another pay cheque.

Without the public’s continued attention, support and outspokenness on the matter, labels can and will continue to exploit the talents of independent, vulnerable artists for their own gain. This cannot be allowed to happen. It is quite possible that an artist who has lost their means of living could go on to write the next brilliant hit, and there begins the cycle once more