An old myth debunked once suggested that human beings only use about 10% of their brains at a time. The rest, presumably, were too busy memorizing snippets of every obscure song we’ve ever heard in passing for possible future use. Or so you’d think, of the plethora of plagiarism lawsuits circulating in the pop world right now.
Dua Lipa recently faced a second plagiarism complaint regarding her 2020 track “Levitating.” Songwriters L. Russell Brown and Sandy Linzer claimed the opening melody is ripped from sections of their tracks for Cory Dale’s 1979 song “Wiggle And A Giggle All Night” and Miguel’s 1980 number Bosé “Don Diablo”, which – if true – would make Lipa and his fellow songwriters the most formidable pop quiz crew on the planet.
Acts like Olivia Rodrigo, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj, Will.i.Am, The Weeknd and Childish Gambino have all faced similar claims over the past few years, and in 2020 Peppa Pig was absolutely roasted in court for claiming she caught the ‘Peppa Party Time’ tune from Louise Redknapp’s ‘Naked’. Luckily, Peppa also didn’t brush off any of the lines on “sensuality” and “Undress me with your eyes”.
And, of course, Ed Sheeran is currently awaiting the outcome of the high-profile case of grime actor Sami Switch (aka Sami Chokri) and his writing partner Ross O’Donoghue over alleged similarities between the “oh i, oh i” section of ‘Shape Of You’ and Chokri’s 2015 song ‘Oh Why’. Effectively boiling down to a judge deciding whether someone can legally own the pentatonic scale, the case drew a lot of attention because of the numbers involved: $20 million in royalty assets owed to Sheeran and co-writers from the song have been frozen by PRS until the case is decided, and approximately $5 million a year in revenue from the song is up for grabs. Recreating a builder’s wolf whistle in an R&B style turns out to be a lot of money.
With Sheeran singing Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” in court as evidence of the common use of one of pop’s most standard melodic tracks, and openly admitting to worrying about the section’s similarity to “No Diggity ‘ from Blackstreet, it seems there have been many other, far more well-known places that Sheeran could have pulled the part from, it all depends on whether Chokri and O’Donoghue can convince the court that Sheeran had heard the song before previously. They claim to have sent him a tape of the song in hopes of getting his approval, but as all my cousins dentists who are in shitty bands will tell you, giving your music to a busy person in the music industry doesn’t mean they’ll bother to listen to it.
This is a difficult result to predict. On the one hand, Sheeran has already had to shell out plagiarism claims, settling a £16m lawsuit from Matt Cardle over his track “Photograph” in 2015. On the other, the fact that his team approached TLC before the release of ‘Shape Of You’ to strike a deal over its similarities to ‘No Scrubs’ suggests that Sheeran is playing it pretty darn sure at the pick ‘n’ mix of pop these days.
Whatever the verdict, the case bears witness to the vast chasm that has opened up in music between the rich and the poor. Revenues are so heavily weighted toward a few dominant acts, and so lean the mush distributed to the vast majority, that frivolous plagiarism suits become a viable alternative for struggling acts to really hit it big themselves. It’s like the French Revolution, with T-Pain.
Successful musicians are clearly entering a perilous period when it comes to copyrights. Definitions of musical plagiarism have been shattered by the estate of Marvin Gaye who successfully sued the authors of Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ for copying the ‘sensation’ of ‘Got To Give It Up’. Meanwhile, the huge boom in self-published music – 60,000 songs are uploaded to Spotify every day – has meant that vast torrents of songs are flowing into the public domain, each of which might bear a minor resemblance to any what a formative piece Charli XCX could hum to herself in the bath.
If Sheeran loses his case, every monster hit could soon become a financial feeding frenzy, as swarms of sonic piranhas descend to nibble on their “rightful share”. It could become a musical lottery – “who has the A minor in C with the bonus words ‘hey’ and ‘baby’? Come down!
It would certainly pay off for new songwriters to bombard the management offices of major bands with email links to their music, just in case they happen to, by chance, end up writing something with a vaguely chord progression. similar. And it would become a wise industry practice for major artists to demonstrably isolate themselves from any music other than their own – no streaming, no collaboration, soundproof locker rooms at festivals, etc. – to protect their future income.
Or, you know, everyone could take inspiration from Elvis Costello’s book. “That’s how rock & roll works,” he tweeted when the similarities between his “Pump It Up” riff and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal” were pointed out to him online. “You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a whole new toy. That’s what I did.”
Ditto Oasis, Elastica, Led Zeppelin and many other artists who recognize that music is a shared and evolving experience. It’s important that there are copyright protections in place to prevent major clueless acts from simply plundering the oceans of streaming music with impunity, and removing entire melodies or wholesale lyrics from unknown tracks is undoubtedly the work of a scoundrel and a boor.
But before you toss out that no-gain-no-cost plagiarism claim on a few notes, struggling songwriters, maybe stop and ask yourself: why are you really in this?