Plagiarism: What’s Yours Ain’t Mine

Bob Dylan

I remember the first song I plagiarized.  It was “Leaving On A Jet Plane” by John Denver.  I was probably only about 12 years old at the time because I had likely heard the song on the radio sometime in 1969 when it was first released.  I didn’t know the word “plagiarism” then, let alone understand the concept of it.

I was in the middle of writing a song called “Home” (sorry, I took that title before you, Edward Sharpe and Phillip Phillips!).  Instinctively I came up with a little instrumental bridge, but then I decided to hum over top of it.  Part of the melody I was humming was the first two lines of the chorus of Leaving On A Jet Plane.  I remember the subtle feeling that the melody wasn’t mine, but it didn’t bother me too much at the time!

Every songwriter has occasionally come to the point in the writing of a song, or after finishing it, when they’ve wondered if it isn’t something they’ve heard before.  I remember a few times later on in my songwriting life, realizing that I had unknowingly plagiarized something and being utterly disappointed in myself.  Damn!  And I really liked that one too!

It might help to know that even the songwriting giants make the mistake of accidentally plagiarizing from time to time.  One famous case was the Rolling Stones’ song “Anybody Seen My Baby?”, in which the chorus melody was pretty much exactly the same as k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving”.  Mick Jagger and Keith Richards claimed they had never heard the song, and that might be true. But practically speaking, they would have only had to be somewhere where that song was playing to subliminally pick it up.  You’ve all experienced how a melody can appear in your head, even when you don’t recognize the song or where it came from.  Was it playing in the coffee shop when you were ordering your latte?

The result was that Jagger and Richards included k.d. land and her songwriting partner Ben Mink as co-writers on their song.  That way, any royalties earned would be split between all of them.  A nice, simple solution.  But it’s not always so nice.

The case of Marvin Gaye’s family vs. Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke lead all the way to court.  I wrote about this in an earlier blog. When Thicke and Williams were writing “Blurred Lines”, they were deliberately trying to come up with something that sounded the same as Gaye’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up”.  Well, it sounded SO much the same that they lost the subsequent lawsuit filed by Gaye’s family.  Be careful what you wish for.

Bob Dylan was once called out by Joni Mitchell for being a plagiarist because of Bob’s habit of “borrowing” from earlier folk songwriters and poets to craft his own songs.  There’s a good article all about that here. He had no shame, however. That’s Bob for ya. Actually, folk music songwriters young and old did a lot of plagiarizing, except the word used was “pastiche”.  In the dictionary, pastiche is defined in one way as: “a piece of writing, music, etc., that is made up of selections from different works”.  That’s the way Bob thought of it I guess.

Many of you remember the art of “sampling”, where a small section of a well-known recording was actually used in a newer recording.  In the beginning, the original artists were not paid any royalties for that little snippet, but eventually the laws changed and they were compensated.  Sampling didn’t continue on very much after that, needless to say!

The truth is that when first we start writing songs we tend to repeat pretty much everything we’ve ever heard before.  Our lyrics can sound cheesy and boring, our melodies uninspired, all because we’re simply regurgitating our past playlists and nothing is new.  How aware we are of that depends on the person.  Many realize when their songs sound dull and boring, but they often don’t know why.  Plagiarism, then, is as natural as speaking your first words when you were an infant.  You repeat what you hear, and what’s the harm in that?  It only gets sticky when the money starts rolling in.

My little song “Home” never made it any further than an old cassette tape, complete with the rip off section of Leaving On A Jet Plane.  I’ll file that under “pastiche” :-).

IJ

2 comments

  1. Hi Irene … Love your blog and found this recent entry interesting in light of the fact that I wrote a song specifically to be “Buddy Holly-esque” … was wondering what you thought. Is it safe to consider it original even though the chords and the general chord progressions are those that Buddy Holly used over and over again? Thanks! … Judson

    1. Thanks for your comment Judson 🙂 One thing that might make you feel a little more “comfortable” about your writing is that it’s not possible to copyright a chord progression. In fact, you can probably find similar chord progressions to Buddy Holly’s all over the place! In the U.S., the only copyrightable elements are melody and lyrics.

      Having said that, one of the things that got Williams and Thicke in trouble was the groove or feel of the song. They were aiming to copy Marvin Gaye’s groove, obviously, but probably didn’t realize or understand that it could be an issue. So just because a groove can’t be copyrighted, doesn’t mean it can’t be a problem. You also have to remember that we’re talking about a lot of money, too. So I’d say don’t worry about it until you write a hit 🙂

      IJ

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