Throughout my life, music has been the backing track to what drives my motivation. I have always been on the more creative side of thinking and experiencing things. After I finished high school I went into a creative writing degree, in 2014, I did a diploma of Music Business. Now, in 2018, I have found my muse, and am studying a Bachelor of Audio. Although, being a creative thinker the way that I am, I have never really thought about the business side of music, and the potential dangers it might cause to my career. Which is probably why I didn’t excel in my music business degree, I guess that’s a little ironic (ha).
Something that really strikes a chord with me is the case of plagiarism between artists. What defines plagiarism? What’s the difference between plagiarism and influence? There’s numerous cases throughout history which spark debate with how legitimate the creativity behind a song is, or how desperate some artists can be for money.
Some cases that I have found throughout my degree are seriously shocking, one of which involves one of the biggest inspirations to my music, George Harrison.
This was one of the longest running court cases in American history, lasting 27 years. It involved the band The Chiffons, in a case of ‘subconscious plagiarism’. Which is the most fair dinkum court case I have ever heard of. That’s sarcasm by the way, in case you didn’t realise.
The Chiffons took George Harrison to court over his No. 1 single, “My Sweet Lord”. This was in dispute of their song, “He’s So Fine”. For a little insight, let’s take a listen.
Now have a listen to The Chiffons, “He’s So Fine”,
It’s really up to interpretation with this one. However, as a music producer, so many things come into my mind when debating a topic like this. In this case in particular, the tempo, rhythm, chord progression are all completely different. I didn’t even realise what was plagiarised until I saw this Youtube comment,
From an outsider’s perspective, a song is no more than a band playing in a room which is sent to your ears via your headphones. But there is so much more to it. Compression, EQ and effect processing are all things that are added to a mix which can be the sole difference between many bands. These processes set out the vibe to every song. Which is pretty damn important for a music producer, and these songs don’t nearly have the same feel as each other.
Each audio file has its own history. Editing processes such as cutting and compressing leave their own marks, and this is what researchers use to detect manipulated recordings or plagiarised passages of music with the help of special software. (Gesellschaft, 2014)
Now, this doesn’t necessarily relate to this case, but it does relate to me as a producer. These are the sorts of things that I need to be careful of when working with artists. I certainly don’t want to become under fire by any law suits for cases of plagiarism. Especially when there’s so much pressure with new software that detects plagiarism through editing processors done by the producer. Which is funny, cause George Harrison’s producer never picked up on it,
George Harrison had a worldwide hit with “My Sweet Lord” in 1971. It is odd that its producer, Phil Spector, never pointed out the similarity with “He’s So Fine” by the New York girl group The Chiffons. After Allen Klein fell out with The Beatles, he bought the publishing rights to “He’s So Fine” and sued Harrison in revenge. (Leigh, 2010)
When it comes down to it though, a lot of this really depends on how you differentiate plagiarism and influence. The Beatles were no stranger for using other artist’s material in their own, and so has 90% of artists in the world. The only difference however, is the interpretation of influence.
In a candid and perhaps unguarded moment, Paul McCartney told Guitar Player in 1990, “What do they say? ‘A good artist borrows, a great artist steals’ – or something like that. That makes The Beatles great artists because we stole a lot of stuff.”
McCartney wasn’t admitting to theft. He was saying that The Beatles didn’t operate in a vacuum and they assimilated what was happening around them to create original music. Their “yeah, yeah, yeahs” had previously been used by Elvis Presley and The Isley Brothers and their introduction to “I Feel Fine” mimics Bobby Parker’s “Watch Your Step”. (Leigh, 2010)
With this in mind, is that much different to the court case between George Harrison and The Chiffons? Seems like Paul McCartney has certainly done that a bit himself.
As the old saying goes: there is no such thing as an original thought. Everyone from Shakespeare to the Beatles to Zeppelin has been accused of stealing ideas from those that came before them. We are all influenced by the world around us, and songwriters are no exception. But where is the line drawn between being influenced by something, and plagiarising it? (Dahl, 2017)
I’ll leave you here with that thought. Although it is up to interpretation to what you think about the song. But for me, nah, I don’t think so.
Dahl, K. (2017). what constitutes music plagiarism?. Retrieved from http://lawyerdrummer.com/2017/03/music-plagiarism-2/
Gesellschaft, F. (2014). No room for wrong notes: Analyzing music recordings for plagiarism. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140204073932.htm
Leigh, S. (2010). When it comes to songwriting, there’s a fine line between inspiration. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/when-it-comes-to-songwriting-theres-a-fine-line-between-inspiration-and-plagiarism-2021199.html