Plagiarism is a boring subject that I’ve talked about all too often on these pages, but the latest high profile case is a perfect little microcosm of the problem, and where the lawyers are leading us.
So. I assume we’re all familiar with Radiohead’s Creep (Pablo Honey, 1993) yes? Well they were successfully sued by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood of the Hollies for plagiarising their famous song ‘The Air that I Breath’. So listen up, and listen well – for here are the respective songs, side by side.
Now, you will admit that there is a family similarity here. The chord progression and the melody are definitely close kinfolk. And, in fact, if you pick up a copy of The Bends today, you will see Hammond and Hazlewood credited as co-authors of the song. Their attempt to sue was successful and according to H&H, Radiohead effectively admitted that it was a soft steal.
And now, fast forward 20 years and Lana Del Ray is being sued by Radiohead for stealing Creep.
Again – here’s the tune in question so you’ve got some context.
Yep. Hard to not notice the extremely close similarity in terms of melody, pace, arrangement and chord change there, and it stretches credulity to say “I’ve never even heard ‘Creep!'” given its place in pop culture to anyone who was alive in the 90s (Del Ray is 32).
And so Radiohead, who have to give 40% of their songwriting royalties for Creep to the Hollies are trying to get some cut (according to some sources 100%) of the royalties for Get Free. As the saying goes: the only ones winning here are the lawyers.
I just hope they never hear Pulp’s Underwear (Different Class, 1995)…
Or Morrissey’s I Know It’s Gonna Happen Some Day (Your Arsenal, 1992)
…and probably dozens of other songs in a similar vein.
You see, this is where the shortcomings of ‘copyright’ law as it stands should be apparent. Unless you’re The Cardiacs, Frank Zappa etc, most Western musicians use a common sonic ‘language’ of chord sequences that make sense in our shared cultural seas.
A good example is the the I-IV-V progression that has been a staple of the blues since way back when. If you pop into your local pub on open mic night, there’s a 100% possibility that you’ll find a bunch of guys jamming gamely along to this progression – either just as a chance to solo over the top, or as part of a vast back catalog of songs which use that progression as their underpinning. That might even be why you roll your eyes and head outside for a fag when someone strikes up in this vein: you’ve heard it a billion times.
The musical structure, the phrasing and even the lyrics all operate in a small set of well understood tropes of the genre. If you love the blues, then it remains thrilling to hear them done well. If you don’t, then it’s all such tedious reworking of old ground.
The chord pattern that underpins all the songs above is clearly the same thing – even if the keys differ. The root note, the major fourth, major fifth, then minor fifth (C maj, E maj, F maj, F min, in the example of Creep) is something that has a recognisable mood. To our ears, we instantly understand this as having a kind of implicit unspoken meaning that is both uplifting (the first two chords), but also sad (the shift from major to minor of the last two chords).
This is common to all shared musical languages and even used to identify them. You might not be able to put a name to it, but the music of the baroque period has a certain feel to it, derived in part from the re-use of chord patterns and even melody that was the idiom of the times. So deeply rooted are these conventions that the practised ear can confidently state which era a piece of music comes from just by listening for those conventions.
Likewise the entire oeuvre of folk music is based on a commonly understood set of changes and unspoken ‘rules’. Half of Dylan’s back catalogue can be traced back in terms of lyrics and melody to stuff that’s been knocking around for centuries. Let’s listen first to his (incredible) Masters of War. And listen quickly, because his lawyers are, ironically, quite quick on this.
Now listen to Jean Ritchie’s Nottanum Town.
Oof. Surely Ritchie’s estate should be pursuing Dylan through every court from low to high in search of payment for his assimilation of her work?
Plot twist: Nottanum Town actually dates back to the Middle Ages.
Prior to the invention of recording music, tunes just… existed. Passed from minstrel to minstrel. You overheard someone else’s song, committed it to memory and passed it along at your next gig – perhaps with your own version of the lyrics, or in a different key that was easier for you to sing or whatever. If Marvin Berry hadn’t overheard Marty McFly, maybe there wouldn’t even have been rock ‘n’ roll.
And you know what? Nobody died from this. Music flourished and traditions were nurtured across countless generations, and people got paid for being itinerant minstrels and the songs long outlived their creators without even the notion of copyright.
But, since the advent of recording, suddenly the idea of melody and lyrics as being proprietary things has put down deep, deep roots. You can’t walk out of the pub without running into someone who will grab you by the lapels, slam you against the wall and begin a litany of instances where Led Zep stole this riff, that arrangement, or the other lyric.
And now, weirdly, we’re in a position where it’s almost impossible to make money from recorded music in any case. I can attest from personal experience that it will be many years of streaming royalties and iTunes downloads before you make as much as you can doing a handful of gigs as a cover band in pubs.
So, if I’ve mistakenly written a song that sounds like a Meghan Trainor dancefloor smash – and it is entirely possible – then I could lose my house, home, kids, wife, and biscuit tin for my crime – even if I’ve never heard of Meghan Trainor (which I haven’t). On the other hand, I could take my guitar down the pub, don a wig, bill myself as Faken Trainor and earn $$$$ playing her songs live without so much as a court order.
I don’t know what the answer to this is or even where I’m headed with this point, only to observe that – as in many areas of life – we’ve legislated ourselves into a right ruddy pickle from which really nobody benefits other than a tiny number of already wealthy copyright holders.