Who are the music composers for COLDPLAY

Two decades of legal battle over two seconds of beat - plagiarism in music

"Everyone stole, but the big ones stole brilliantly," said the American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. He was referring to music theft, in which a composer uses musical material from another composer in his own work. Bernstein pointed out that with the "big ones", the new work that was created in this way contained a high level of creative content. It is true that he was referring to the greats of the classical period; in fact, this happens in all genres of music. Melodies, harmony sequences or characteristic rhythms are reused, often without asking the author's permission. The courts have been dealing with this for decades; the amounts in dispute are getting higher and higher.

Kraftwerk vs. Pelham

The band Kraftwerk and rap artist Moses Pelham are currently arguing in court. He took two seconds from the Kraftwerk title "Metal on Metal" and placed them as an endless loop under the track "Nur mir" produced for Sabrina Setlur.

Defendant Pelham

The case has preoccupied the courts for over 20 years and is now before the European Court of Justice. Only recently, a reviewer from the ECJ had strengthened the author's position: The copying and use of parts of a sound carrier in another song is an interference with the rights of the producer and is to be forbidden without his permission, it is said. The assessment is not binding for ECJ judges, but they often follow it. The verdict is due to fall in 2019.

A whole genre of music will be affected by this: When it comes to sampling, the express removal and reuse of foreign material, the whole point is in copying. The previous verdicts in this context were different in the various instances. A hint that dishes might not be the best place to push the limits of creativity?

Celebrities in the dock

Columbia Law School in New York has documented over 100 cases involving plagiarism of music. The most famous and longest case concerned a Beatle: There was an argument about "My Sweet Lord" by George Harrison for 27 years. In the end, $ 1.6 million in royalties were due to the band "The Chiffons" for copying one of their songs.

Other sizes also got hit. The model for "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash is said to have been the "Crescent City Blues" by Gordon Jenkins. Cash had to pay the creator $ 100,000.

The dispute over Led Zeppelin's piece "Stairway to Heaven", which is one of the most successful songs of all time with $ 500 million in sales, went off lightly. Here the band was not convicted of plagiarism.

Pop star Shakira was hit harder: In 2014 a US federal court ruled that the singer had acted illegally when she made the song "Loca con su Tiguere" by the Dominican singer Ramón Arias Vásquez the basis of her hit "Loca" in 2010.

And the German rapper Bushido was also convicted: He had to pay damages of more than 60,000 euros to the French gothic band Dark Sanctuary. According to the court, he used 16 of their titles without permission and issued them as his own.

The plagiarism cases and allegations in the music industry are hard to keep track of: The defendants also include Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Adele, Rihanna, Madonna, Beyoncé or the bands The Beach Boys, Nirvana and Coldplay.

Spoken guilty: Beatle George Harrison

Pandora's Box: Stolen Feeling

Most of these disputes are about stolen melodies, and software is now also used to detect plagiarism.

One prominent case, however, was about something more abstract: the groove, the vibe, or the feel of a song. Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams had to pay 7.4 million dollars (around 6.9 million euros) to the descendants of soul legend Marvin Gaye in 2015 because their song "Blurred Lines" followed the Gaye song "Got to Give It Up". from the 1970s looked too similar. Should this become a precedent, the consequences would be incalculable.

In 2018, Gaye's heirs followed suit and also sued singer Ed Sheeran for a total of 100 million dollars (around 86 million euros). In his 2014 hit "Thinking out Loud" - one of the most heard songs of all time with more than two billion views on YouTube - Sheeran is said to use the rhythm and melody of Marvin Gaye's 1973 song "Let's Get It On" to have. It's not the first time the 27-year-old British megastar has faced allegations of plagiarism.

Creativity not exhausted

Legal disputes are increasing in the music industry because today everything can be called up and checked at any time, said the American musicologist Nate Sloan on Deutschlandfunk.

Pop music has been around for about 70 years. Compared to other music genres, it is created according to relatively narrow stylistic criteria. Is that the end of the musical material in the meantime? "I don't think so," Sloan continued. "Mathematically speaking, there are still innumerable ways in which tones for melodies and songs can be arranged."

ESC: it has to be suitable for the masses and catchy

But: "Pop has to be catchy, accessible to the masses and easy to understand," adds the musicologist. To achieve this, it is usually developed in teams. Although this does not rule out the creation of original ideas, it is becoming increasingly difficult to assign them to individual people.

A prime example of the creativity factories of our time is the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), for which many countries spend enormous sums every year. Sometimes composers and producers work together in songwriting camps and often take more or less the same approach: the song has to appeal straight away and meet a majority of musical tastes, but also contain an original element.

Netta's contribution sounded refreshingly original. Was it really him?

The ESC also had to deal with music plagiarism issues. "Glorious", the song with which the band Cascada represented Germany in 2013, is too similar to Loreen's "Euphoria", last year's winner from Sweden. "No plagiarism", however, was the verdict of the experts. The current song "Toy", with which Israeli Netta won the ESC 2018, is said to be plagiarism, according to the Universal Music Group. Netta is said to have used the band White Stripes for the hit "Seven Nation Army". However, the award was not withdrawn from Netta, and the ESC will be held in Tel Aviv in 2019, as expected.

In jazz, on the other hand, different rules apply than in pop music. The style criteria are broader here and the use of foreign material is far less restrictive. No jazz artist is described today without the names of five or six other artists who are said to have influenced him.

They all stole it, said Leonard Bernstein. Only: some did better.

"On the shoulder of giants ..."

The question remains: where does inspiration end and where does plagiarism begin? Will precise criteria be set in the future so that artists know what they are allowed to do and what not? And if so, is there a new wave of creativity emerging? Or are the boundaries blurred in ever more disputes, uncertainty greater and creativity slowed down?

It seems doubtful that everything will be better and clearer. The plagiarism problem affects other areas of the arts, academic life, and science as well. It is, to put it in the words of the famous English physicist Isaac Newton, not much different in art than in science: "If I could look a little further, it is because I am standing on the shoulders of giants could."