Complaints for musical plagiarism, haunting pop stars

The explosion of musical creation and the distribution of content on streaming platforms is leading to a multiplication of legal actions against major artists, suspected of finding their inspiration there.

In the music industry, nothing is the same since the release of the hit “Blurred Lines”by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, in 2013. And especially since the appeal trial won five years later by the family of Marvin Gaye, who obtained compensation of $5.3 million, in addition to 50% of future royalties. A federal court in California ruled that this piece, which today displays more than 800 million views on YouTube, had copied the “feel” and “sound” of “Got To Give It Up”, a hit released a quarter of a century earlier.

Some similarities are obvious. “Blurred Lines” which means, in a funny coincidence, “blurred lines”, borrows the same tempo, the same tones, the same story as “Got To Give It Up”, and the same lascivious imagery specific to the career of Marvin Gaye as that of Pharrel Williams. Inspiration, even filiation, are probable. From there to fall under copyright?

Successful lawsuits for musical plagiarism date back to the golden age of vinyl, but were for almost indisputable offences. You don’t need absolute pitch to agree with the judges in the case of “Ice Ice Baby”, by Vanilla Ice, which was largely modeled on “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie. Nor on that of “Surfin USA”, by the Beach Boys, which is more than a tribute to Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”. Or on that of “Creep”, by Radiohead, which clearly flows from the same vein than “The Air that I breathe”, a hit by the Hollies in the 70s.

Digital padlocks

Plagiarism complaints are today much more commonas a result in particular of number of new creations unprecedented published every day on the platforms (60,000 on Spotify), with therefore direct or indirect copiesunconscious or voluntary, more and more frequent. And with more and more difficult offenses to establish, the possible borrowings being less and less coarse.


New musical creations per day

Complaints of plagiarism are now much more common, notably as a result of the unprecedented volume of new creations published every day on the platforms: 60,000 on Spotify.

“Digital padlocks” come to the aid of original creators: YouTube, for example, offers an algorithm, named Content ID, which automatically identifies neighboring harmonics. Lawyer Damien Riehl and programmer Noah Rubin have also created a freely accessible catalog of 68 billion eight-note melodies, allowing new creations to be copyrighted.

“Digital padlocks” come to the aid of original creators: YouTube, for example, offers an algorithm, called Content ID, which automatically identifies neighboring harmonics.

Waiting, pressure remains high on pop stars. Briton Ed Sheeran has been piling up complaints for a few years. His “Thinking out Loud”, released in 2014, earned him a legal action brought by … Marvin Gaye’s family for its strong resemblances to “Let’s Get It On”. A few notes suggest that he drew some good inspiration there. From there to plagiarize? He also recently won a lawsuit for his planetary tube “Shape of You”.

Other very popular artists have also been targeted lately, such as Katy Perry, Taylor Swift or Olivia Rodrigo. Dua Lipa is the subject of two different complaints for the same song, “Levitating”.

A few notes suggest that he drew some good inspiration there. From there to plagiarize?

It also happens that legendary songs are the subject of a complaint several decades after their creation. This was the case of Stairway to Heaven, by Led Zeppelin, whose 1971 composition was confirmed to be authentic in 2016 after legal action by a folk singer. Other more unexpected hits do not escape the voracity of certain shadow artists: this is the case of the heady Christmas soundtrack, “All I want for Christmas is You” (1994). An American singer, Andy Stone, filed a complaint against Mariah Carey earlier this month. He is asking for $20 million.

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