Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Arts | Law

July 24, 2007

Picking Up What They're Laying Down

Gelf gets the scoop on the biggest he-stole-she-stole song plagiarism debates of the last half century.

Adam Conner-Simons

Twice within the last few months, Avril Lavigne has been publicly accused of musical plagiarism; allegedly, she stole melodies, rhythm, and lyrical content from other bands' songs in her new album, The Best Damn Thing.

According to copyright law, musicians who accuse others of stealing their work must prove "access"—the alleged plagiarizer must have heard the song he's said to have ripped off—and "similarity"—the songs must share unique musical components. The nebulous definition of "similarity" means that even top legal scholars disagree about when plagiarism has occurred. "There's no right answer as to how similar a similarity has to be," Michael Meuer, a professor of intellectual property law at Boston University, tells Gelf.

Was one of Bob Marley's most famous reggae songs ripped off from a '60s children's television show?
The bridge to 'Buffalo Soldier'—'woy! yoy! yoy!'—sounds suspiciously like the Banana Splits' 'Tra La La Song.'

Was one of Bob Marley's most famous reggae songs ripped off from a '60s children's television show?

Of course, many musicians sample each other's work, but a sampling artist makes it known that he is borrowing elements from someone else’s song, and agrees to pay the original musician for it. When songs sound alike and there's no attribution, there's often a lawsuit; Lavigne's starts in late August. She's resting her defense on both pillars of the copyright law, claiming that the songs she's alleged to have pilfered from are materially different from her own and that she had never heard at least one of the songs she supposedly stole from before she made her album.

Lavigne is not the first artist—and certainly not the most famous—to be accused of theft. Musical luminaries from the Beach Boys to Bob Marley to John Fogerty have all taken their lumps in the court of public opinion—and sometimes in the court of law. Gelf asked musicologists and intellectual property lawyers to weigh in on some of the most famous instances of alleged musical plagiarism.

The accused: Beach Boys' "Surfin' U.S.A." from 1963

The accuser: Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" from 1958

The supposed plagiarism: The melody and chords. According to USC music professor Joanna Demers, author of Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity, the Boys clearly plagiarized, though she also tells Gelf that "everyone rips off that distinctive Chuck Berry beginning."

The result:The Beach Boys now have to pay all royalties to Chuck Berry, who has also been given the official songwriting credit. (Interestingly, Beach Boys manager Murry Wilson, the father of most of the band members, gave Berry the copyright in 1963 without telling the band, who didn't realize they weren't credited as songwriters until more than 25 years later).

The accused: George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" from 1971

The accuser: The Chiffons' "He's So Fine" from 1963

The supposed plagiarism: The melody and chords. More specifically, both songs have a highly irregular grace note that struck the expert witnesses in the case as beyond coincidental.

The result: Harrison had to pay $587,000 to Bright Tunes Music (the company that owned the copyright to "He's So Fine") after a judge found him guilty of "subconscious" plagiarism. According to Meuer, Harrison lost the case in no small part to the fact that the Chiffons' song was on the bestseller charts when Harrison was a teenager, proving that young George had "access" to the song on the radio.

The accused: Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" from 1980

The accuser: The Banana Splits' "Tra La La Song" (TV theme song) from 1968

The supposed plagiarism: The bridge of the Marley song (1:18 into the clip). E. Michael Harrington, an entertainment and music business professor at Belmont University in Tennessee, finds the bridge of both songs to be too simple to allow for clear plagiarism, arguing that the tune's melodic run of 8-6-5 ("Woy yoy yoy!") is a common construction from the simple pentatonic scale. On the other hand, Duke music professor Anthony Kelley thinks that the two songs are very similar with respect to meter and motive, and finds it questionable that they both use nonsensical syllables.

The result: Nothing. No lawsuit, no litigation—and at this point, it seems highly unlikely that the Splits will go after the Marley estate.

The accused: Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters Theme" from 1984

The accuser: Huey Lewis & the News' "I Want a New Drug" from 1983

The supposed plagiarism: The backing instrumentation. This case has interesting roots: Lewis's group was contacted by Ghostbusters' producers in 1984 and invited to write and perform the film's theme song. When the band declined, Parker Jr. concocted his own similar-sounding theme. Demers says that in this situation—where Lewis had proof that the movie producers approached him—the artist could easily argue that the defendants were trying to steal his public personality. Other musicologists beg to differ—both Cronin and Kelley grants the general stylistic similarities but view the Ghostbusters song as a riff on the original groove.

The result:The two parties reached an out-of-court settlement in 1995 and said that the matter was "amicably resolved" (VH1).

The accused: John Fogerty's "The Old Man Down the Road" from 1985

The accuser: "Run Through the Jungle," the 1970 song by…John Fogerty

The supposed plagiarism: The chords, guitar riffs, general groove and vocal delivery. Fantasy Records had the copyright to "Jungle" and sued Fogerty when he released "Old Man" for Warner Bros. Demers attributes the lawsuit to Fantasy "being spiteful" towards their former client. As for the music itself, the musicologists interviewed seem to agree that "Old Man" is similar but not plagiarized. Charles Cronin, a law librarian who put together the Columbia University Music Plagiarism Project, doesn't consider the supposedly stolen elements—particularly the vocals and the "swamp-rock" style—to fall under copyright law. Harrington adds that "Old Man" changes chords 19 times, while "Jungle" stays on the same chord the whole time.

The result:Fogerty was found not guilty of copyright infringement, and later won a countersuit in which the courts forced Fantasy to pay for Fogerty's legal fees. This follow-up case represented a huge victory for musicians' creative freedom and has made many record companies think twice before filing such lawsuits.

The accused: Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" from 1990

The accuser: Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure" from 1981

The supposed plagiarism: The bass line, which Vanilla Ice famously defended as being slightly altered. ("Theirs goes, 'Ding ding ding dingy ding-ding.' Ours goes, 'Ding ding ding ding dingy ding-ding.' "). The musicologists agree on this rather blatant example of a rap rip-off. "There is no doubt in any musician's mind that this is not a coincidental borrowing," Kelly says.

The result:While no lawsuit was ever filed, Ice reportedly settled out of court, and songwriting credit was given to Bowie and the members of Queen.

The accused: The Flaming Lips' "Fight Test" from 2003

The accuser: Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" from 1970

The supposed plagiarism: The melody of the verses. Dr. Craig de Wilde, a music professor at Australia's Monash University, admits that the parallel is suggestive of copying, but calls it a "brief passage" that is not enough to indicate copying.

The result:Lips singer Wayne Coyne claimed not to be aware that he was singing a similar tune until his producer pointed it out. To Coyne's credit, he readily agreed to send royalties to Yusaf Islam (the singer formerly known as Stevens). "If you're dealing with good groups, they're not trying to steal," Harrington says. "You can do it accidentally."

The accused: Lee Hyori's "Get Ya" from 2006

The accuser: Britney Spears's "Do Somethin'" from 2004

The supposed plagiarism: The general groove and the line "I'm gonna get ya" (which has the same intonation as "why don't you do something?"). De Wilde calls the vocal delivery "identical and…obvious" and thinks the fact that the two-word phrases are titles is particularly damaging. On the other hand, Harrington and others doubt that these similarities were flagrant enough to win a copyright infringement case.

The result:After Spears's songwriters contacted Hyori's producers, her record company stopped promoting "Get Ya" and started pushing a second single instead (Wikipedia).

The accused: Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Dani California" from 2006

The accuser: Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance" from 1993

The supposed plagiarism: The groove and chord progressions. The parallels were first noticed on the Dan Gaffney Morning Show on WGMD radio in Delaware, and not longer after rumors began to swirl that Petty was going to sue the Chili Peppers.

The result:Said rumors proved false. In a Rolling Stone interview, Petty said, "I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there; a lot of rock and roll songs sound alike."


The accused: Nelly Furtado's Timbaland-produced "Do It" from 2006

The accuser: GRG's approved remix of Tempest's "Acidjazzed evening" from 2002

The supposed plagiarism: More or less everything (with some hip-hop drums added). The YouTube clip meticulously compares the two songs, slowing "Do It" down to half-speed to show that Timbaland added the same intermittent "triangle waveform blips" that GRG used in his version. Even Harrington, who says he sides with defendants in most cases, finds the contrast to be pretty persuasive.

The result: Janne Sani, the musician who uses the "Tempest" moniker, has announced on his website that he has hired legal representation. In a February radio interview (YouTube), Timbaland confirmed that they are in legal discussions and called the situation "ridiculous." He admitted to sampling—but not "stealing"—the song, and said that the groove was from a video game (a claim that Sani denies on his site).

The accused: Avril Lavigne's "Girlfriend" from 2007

The accuser: The Rubinoos' "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" from 1979

The supposed plagiarism: The lyrics and cadence to the chorus, which shouts "Hey, hey! You, you! I could be your girlfriend!" Lavigne denies the accusations, defending herself by curiously pointing out that she could have just as easily been plagiarizing the Rolling Stones' "Hey You! Get Off Of My Cloud" (YouTube). Demers notices the marked lyrical similarity between Lavigne's song and that of The Rubinoos, but says that the Stones' song was likely the inspiration for both.

The result: The Rubinoos' songwriters filed a lawsuit earlier this month, with the first court date set for August 28. The controversy has led to a wave of trigger-happy YouTube users who have already uncovered another example of supposed Avril theft, this time with a Peaches track (YouTube).

Related on the Web

For more examples of plagiarism controversies, check out The Copyright Site and Thomas Irvin's similar-sounding songs (with samples).

Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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- Arts
- posted on Jul 25, 07
Michael Gluckstadt

Nice job Adam, I couldve sworn I had heard that Avril Lavigne song somewhere else

- Arts
- posted on Aug 22, 07
David Mitchell

Nice job Adam!

- Arts
- posted on Sep 21, 07


- Arts
- posted on Oct 31, 07
Lindsay Clark

This was a really fun site. I'm teaching at a middle school and they really enjoyed a section I did on copyright law. Your research helped a lot of the kids. They especially enjoyed the links so they could hear the music on their own and compare themselves.


- Arts
- posted on Dec 13, 07
Evil Mammoth

Nice article.

Just wanted to let you know, though, that the Ray Parker Jr. video was taken off of YouTube. Not that I needed to watch it or anything. It's Ghostbusters, for Christ's sake. It's replaced the National Anthem.

- Arts
- posted on Jan 11, 08
Sandino Rios

Good one Adam,
THe other one I thought of was the misfits, who claim that STP stole a song off them, I beleive it was sex type thing.

- Arts
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- Arts
- posted on Mar 13, 13
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Article by Adam Conner-Simons

Adam Conner-Simons is a freelance journalist in Boston.

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