Music plagiarism controversies have become a routine occurrence on the Chinese internet. It seems like every now and then another musician would be accused of plagiarizing their way into stardom and another Weibo(Chinese Twitter) war between anti-fans and fans would go viral. Despite the amount of discussion around it, plagiarism remained somewhat of a mystery to the public. Everyone seems to have their own definition and the fight about it doesn’t seem to be yielding any results. That’s why we took it upon ourselves to clarify what is plagiarism in the eyes of the law.
First, the 6-bar sampling rule of plagiarism is just a myth. Forget about it.
This illegitimate urban legend came from a legitimate music copyright infringement case, Marks v. Leo Feist, Inc. 290F. 959 (2d Cir. 1923), where the court ruled that out of the 450 bars of the song, a six-bar similarity is not substantial enough to count as copyright infringement. However, this is a very unique case with very specific features and therefore the ruling cannot be applied to other cases. If six bars is the definitive threshold for plagiarism, then everyone would be copying five and a half bars from each other and getting away with it. Logically, the 6-bar sampling myth cannot stand.
Next, strip away the decor.
In literature, we can use a variety of different adjectives to convey the same meaning. For example, you can say either “you are gorgeous” or “you look stunning” to express your appreciation for someone’s beauty. Music is a form of art just like literature and the use of different adjectives in literature would be equivalent to using different timbre, tonality or structure. So before we can compare two songs for potential plagiarism, we should take the differences in tempo, timbre, effects, and riff, etc out of the picture, and focus on the essentials: lyrics, harmonies, and melodies.
Third, simplify the texture.
A regular song usually consists of the melody, the harmony, and the bass. Reduce the complicated texture to these three parts would help you get to the core of the song.
Next, compare the melody and harmony.
A copyright infringer would make changes to the melody, but usually not the disjunct motions because they are the highlights of the melodic motion (I’m sure all of you funk bass players would agree with me). Besides, Infringers don’t normally alter the on-beat notes because they determine the chord progression. Harmony can be altered but only to a certain degree. Copycat songs usually have the same chord at the beginning of a musical sentence and the end of a musical sentence to preserve the vibe of the original song. But the middle chords can be added or altered without making the song drastically different. Therefore, the beginning chord, the ending chord, on-beat notes, and the disjunct motions are critical elements to compare to give you a good idea of whether the song is plagiarized.
Finally, look at the overall structure.
Having examined the microscopic elements of the song, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture, the structure. A typical pop song usually goes like this:
Intro – Verse – Chorus – Verse – Chorus – Bridge – Chorus – Outro
If the critical elements mentioned above are 75% similar in the same section, then the section is plagiarized. If 60% of the critical elements match in the whole song, then the whole song is plagiarized.
To recap, here’s a summary of the six-step guide to spotting plagiarism:
First, forget about the 6-bar rule.
Second, strip away the decorative elements of the song such as timbre and effects.
Third, simplify the texture and leave only the structure, the melody, and the harmony.
Forth, compare critical elements of the melody and the harmony.
Lastly, compare the overall structure.
Now, if you’re looking to solidify what you’ve learned from the guide, compare the choruses of Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph” and Matt Cardie’s “Amazing”.
Plagiarism deters creativity and we hope this article can help you play a part in fostering a good creative environment where good work gets rewarded accordingly.
Copyright © 2015 China Music Business News