Posts Tagged ‘accidental’

Accidental Influences and Unintended Plagiarisms

April 30, 2009

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“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso

Chances are you’ve heard this or one of the abundance of quotes, clichĂ©s, truisms, axioms, or maxims describing the fine line between homage and theft, borrowing and copying, and imitation and impersonation.

And if you’ve been writing songs for any length of time, chances are even better that you’ve more than once written an amazing composition, sat down with your guitar to play it for your best friend and heard something like this…

“Oh. That’s Lay Lady Lay, by Bob Dylan”

No, really, it’s not…no…wait…hmm. I guess it is.

Bob, I'm glad I didn't have to pay you everytime I tried to re-write your song

Bob, I'm glad I didn't have to pay you everytime I tried to re-write your song

If this has happened to you, don’t feel bad. I’m here to commiserate.

I’ve conjured the chord progression of “Lay Lady Lay”, independently, at least four or five times. If I had a dime for every time I attempted to write “Sittin’ On The Dock of The Bay”, well, I’d have enough to get me drunk and foot-taxied out to the dock itself.

And don’t get me started on Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts”.

Really, though, neither of us should feel bad. We can’t help it.

The point is not that these songs we accidentally pilfer were necessarily easy to write — though the best often seem simple, and therein lies no small part of their genius. The point is that, as music aficionados, we’ve consumed and digested these songs so completely, they’ve seeped into our subconscious mind and forever infected us with their viral essences.

Further, it is not necessary that we’ve directly ingested the influence in question. We could just as easily have absorbed these influences from the culture at large, in the same way that every musician who has written a modern pop song owes a debt of gratitude to The Beatles, even if they have never listened to the band first hand.

Sometimes when we’re trying to create something wholly original, these little bits of pre-digested influence spew forth. If we’re lucky, the pieces come out rearranged, mixed with our own contributions, in some fresh and exciting new configuration.

Other times, the bits of unintentional plagiarism plop out fully assembled, whole hog, and cause our hearts to sink when (if) we finally realize our mistake. It can all make you feel a bit like the computer in Searle’s Chinese Room, that has taken its input and spit out a perfect translation without ever truly understanding the processing that has occurred.

The most famous, real-world example of unintentional plagiarism can be found in George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord”, from his 1970 classic triple album All Things Must Pass.

Exhibit A: "My Sweet Lord"

Exhibit A: George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”

My Sweet Lord (1970) – George Harrison

“My Sweet Lord” was first conceived in December, 1969 when George Harrison “slipped away after a show in Copenhagen from a press conference and began vamping some guitar chords, sitting the chords to the words ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna.'”

He further developed the song’s music and lyrics with musicians in his band and, in the following week, Billy Preston, for whom he was supervising the production of an album. The song was recorded for Preston’s album and the sheet music printed.

Harrison recorded it himself in late 1970 as the first single from his long awaited solo debut, All Things Must Past. It shot to number one, and soon after, the holder of the copyright for The Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine”, Bright Tunes, filed suit against Harrison for copyright infringement.

Exhibit B: "He's So Fine"

Exhibit B: The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”

He’s So Fine (1963) – The Chiffons / Robert Mack

Excerpt from a reprint of Joseph C. Self’s 910 Magazine article (1993) detailing the court case:

The Court noted that HSF incorporated two basic musical phrases, which were called “motif A” and “motif B”. Motif A consisted of four repetitions of the notes “G-E-D” or “sol-mi- re”; B was “G-A-C-A-C” or “sol-la-do-la-do”, and in the second use of motif B, a grace note was inserted after the second A, making the phrase “sol-la-do-la-re-do”. The experts for each party agreed that this was a highly unusual pattern.

Harrison’s own expert testified that although the individual motifs were common enough to be in the public domain, the combination here was so unique that he had never come across another piece of music that used this particular sequence, and certainly not one that inserted a grace note as described above.

Harrison’s composition used the same motif A four times, which was then followed by motif B, but only three times, not four. Instead of a fourth repetition of motif B, there was a transitional phrase of the same approximate length. The original composition as performed by Billy Preston also contained the grace note after the second repetition of the line in motif B, but Harrison’s version did not have this grace note.

Harrison’s experts could not contest the basic findings of the Court, but did attempt to point out differences in the two songs. However, the judge found that while there may have been modest alterations to accommodate different words with a different number of syllables, the essential musical piece was not changed significantly. The experts also pointed out that Harrison’s version of MSL omitted the grace note, but the judge ruled that this minor change did not change the genesis of the song as that which previously occurred in HSF.

With all the evidence pointing out the similarities between the two songs, the judge said it was “perfectly obvious . . . the two songs are virtually identical”. The judge was convinced that neither Harrison nor Preston consciously set out to appropriate the melody of HSF for their own use, but such was not a defense.

Harrison conceded that he had heard HSF prior to writing MSL, and therefore, his subconscious knew the combination of sounds he put to the words of MSL would work, because they had already done so. Terming what occurred as subconscious plagiarism, the judge found that the case should be re-set for a trial on the issue of damages.

The judge ruled in favor of Bright Tunes. To the tune of $260,103.

I don’t disagree with the Court’s assessment of the similarities in the least. But I do take exception with the decision in favor of the copyright holder.

Clearly, the song “My Sweet Lord” sounds very much like the song “He’s So Fine”.

Clearly, the song “My Sweet Lord” is not the same song as “He’s So Fine”.

George Harrison conceded that he’d heard “He’s So Fine” before recording “My Sweet Lord” but admitted to no more conscious influence than the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” during its composition.

This case set the precedent for nearly every musical copyright infringement suit to come during the sample-happy 80s and 90s. Cases that mostly had little to do with songwriting and more to do with repurposing existing recordings of old performances in new contexts.

To me, now, in 2009, both songs sound as equally distinct and distant members of the pop-culture cannon. I could not confuse the two as the same song, and in a case where the judge has essentially ruled-out intent-to-infringe, what other criterion is there?

Here, on the precipice of the Tweens (oh, yah, they’ll be calling them that more quickly than we reckoned our Oughts), we ingest and regurgitate our pop culture so fast that no court in the same situation would be able to justify a similar ruling. Not in these early days of convergent, mash-up, youtube euphoria.

I didn’t veer into legal territory for a cheap scare. I only mean to demonstrate that accidental influence can affect even the most distinguished of songwriters. You shouldn’t make your songwriting decisions based on fear of getting sued. That’s not going to happen to you, unless you should someday become bigger than Jesus.

While there are many valid artistic reasons (outside of an explicit cover) for appropriating parts of a song – composition, arrangement, lyrics, samples of the actual recording – I don’t think anybody wants to write the same song that someone else wrote 30 years ago. That defeats the whole purpose of songwriting, in my mind.

So, how can we protect ourselves from the possibility of accidentally pinching someone else’s tune?

Here’s what I do.

1) Use your ears.

Be honest with yourself. Does your song sound a lot like another song?

Listen to the chord progression, rhythm, and melody. More importantly, consider the three of those together. You can get away with any one of those sounding vaguely familiar, but the more aspects your song has in common with another, the harder it will be to avoid comparisons.

Don’t spend too much time on this exercise, it’s usually a pretty immediate recognition once you’ve committed to looking for similarities as its own activity.

If you do happen to think yours resembles another song, take a breath and don’t worry yet. You’re probably just being overly self-critical. Move on to step 2.

2) Use Someone Else’s Ears

Play your music for a trusted, knowledgable third-party. Don’t prime their opinion by mentioning your suspected doppelgänger at this point. Just play the song and ask for feedback.

Ask them if it sounds like any other songs they can think of. Ask the question even if you think you have invented an entirely new genre with this one.

If your friend does not immediately identify a song you’re subconsciously ripping off, you’re probably in good shape. Repeat the exercise for another friend or two and be done with it.

If your friend DOES call you out on the similarities, all hope is not necessarily lost. Sometimes a minor tweak to the melody is all that’s necessary to erase the similarities. Sometimes it is merely a single yet crucial note suggesting the earlier tune.

Always get a second opinion. It is possible our trusted critics are simply unreliable sources. You may also get a sort of wishy washy this-sounds-a-little-like-that response that may not be good for much.

For example, here’s a song that my friend Dan wrote and we recorded in 2005. I played it for my Mom and the first thing she said was “that sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel song”. Not a specific song, just like a song that should’ve been theirs.

Palisades (2005) – Dan & Jon

You’ll probably get that a lot. Your song sounds like another song or another artist. Know that there’s a fine line between your intent and accidentally going too far. Check out the supposed similarities and if you disagree, then disregard their opinion.

In the case of our song, I took my Mom’s feedback as a compliment and validation of our intent.

3) Use the cold, indifferent, mechanical ears of the internet.

You could try a music search like Midomi that takes a sound (a hum / whistle / or recording of a song) and sets that as the criteria for a search. This is commonly used for identifying a song for which you have no name or artist information, but why not use it to see if it thinks your song sounds like another?

I’m not sure how accurate or consistent the searches are, but it worked for me twice on the same song last weekend.

I was strumming a jaunty D – C with some sing-songy playground melody. It sounded very familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I pulled out the iPhone version of Midomi and played the chorus into the phone for about 10 seconds.

“Gigolo Aunt” by Syd Barrett.

Of course! That made perfect sense. I had been listening to Wouldn’t You Miss Me? The Best of Syd Barrett just the week before. That should’ve been obvious.

I changed up the melody a little and added a chord change. Played it back to Midomi.

“Handshake Drugs” by Wilco.

Damn it! It was, it really was. Time to throw that one out.

4) Don’t worry about it.

If you’re happy with the song, who cares? Unless you’re selling millions of albums, nobody else will care, I can tell you that much.

Just do us all a favor and think twice before unleashing another “What’s Up” by Four Non Blondes on the world.

I pledge to do the same.

For the love of all that is holy, please spare us another "What's Up"

For the love of all that is holy, please spare us another “What’s Up”


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