How to define plagiarism in music?

Vou sit down at your keyboard, and that’s it, you’ve found the hit of the summer. You play the notes, and your spouse recognizes the melody of “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. Did you think you had created? Yes, but you may also have plagiarized.

Plagiarism remains a gray area in music, with no real definition. One thing is certain: this notion is included in the section of counterfeiting, present in article L. 335-3 of the Intellectual Property Code. This is “any reproduction, representation or dissemination, by any means whatsoever, of an author’s work in violation of the author’s rights, as defined and regulated by law”.

READ ALSODo you recognize the classical music composers behind these songs? Plagiarism cannot therefore be dissociated from the notion of copyright, which protects “all works of the mind, whatever their genre, form of expression, merit or destination”. The work must therefore exist (and not just be an idea), and it must be original, that is to say it reflects the personality of its author. So we’re not talking about your daughter’s pasta necklace, as pretty as it is. Though.

Between the law and its interpretation…

In short, this being said, there is no really concrete definition. Taking inspiration from a title does not seem out of the question as long as the authors are credited. How can we differentiate between plagiarism and a simple nod to an artist? Recently, Ed Sheeran had to play guitar in court to prove that his song “Thinking Out Loud” was different from Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It on.” A demonstration which undoubtedly allowed him to win his case against the heirs of Ed Townsend, American musician and producer, associated with the Prince of Motown. However, a musicologist, cited by the prosecution, declared that the chord progression on the two pieces was almost similar. We’ll let you compare the songs.

Is it all a matter of interpretation then? Maybe. Between the heirs of Marvin Gaye (yes, another one of his songs) and Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, justice has ruled: the title “Blurred Lines” from 2013 is a plagiarism of “Got to Give It up”, released in 1977 The two performers were ordered to pay nearly $5 million in compensation, as well as half of the revenue generated by their success. More than just a resemblance of a bass line, the judge argued for a similar “musical style”. Some saw it as a “dangerous decision” since it allows the authors or heirs to attack another person, based on this vague notion.

What if borrowings were actually musical creation in their own right? In any case, this is a common practice in the industry. And that’s what motivated Damien Riehl, a musician lawyer, and Noah Rubin, a developer, to design an algorithm that develops all possible melodies. For them, composition is just a matter of mathematics. By taking the notes (do, re, mi, etc.), this program was able to find 68.7 billion combinations. These were then released into the public domain. So, if other musicians create songs similar to these, they will not be considered plagiarist. Indeed, anything in the public domain has no restrictions on use. Will this be a sufficient legal argument? Maybe not. But if you’re stuck for inspiration, you might be able to look for some melodies there. We’ll know, but we won’t say anything.


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