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Good artists copy; great artists steal

There is a great deal of truth in this saying, which is well known by the music industry’s greatest. Beyoncé recently removed an interpolation of Kelis’ song “Milkshake” from her new song “Energy”. At the end of the original version of the song, the singer sang to the tune of Kelis’ 2003 hit. Before the album was released, Kelis openly expressed her displeasure. This is hardly surprising, as she was not consulted on the decision and called it “theft”. Beyoncé finally updated the streaming platform version of the song on Tuesday and removed the objectionable part.

The difference between “tipping your hat” to another musician for inspiration and being accused of copyright infringement by their lawyer is huge. But sometimes, a few million dollars is enough. Richard Ashcroft, frontman of The Verve, has been in a 22-year-long dispute over a four-second string sample taken from the orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time”. This meant that he hadn’t earned a penny from the band’s 1997 mega-hit “Bittersweet Symphony”. When Ashcroft was awarded the Ivor Novello Prize, he took the opportunity to announce that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had returned the royalties and full songwriting credit to Ashcroft as a “kind and generous gesture”. The deal was struck for the release of Urban Hymns, including songwriting credit for Jagger and Richards – which explains why both of their names were later attached to the Grammy nomination for Best Song for the song – despite the fact that the song bore no resemblance to the original Stones song. This gesture of goodwill by the Stones, however, contrasts with a growing trend since 2015 of lawsuits over alleged songwriting plagiarism being brought to court. Unauthorised samples and suspiciously similar tunes have changed the face of the music industry forever.

There is the “Blurred Lines” case, for example, which is unusual in that the late Marvin Gaye‘s family did not accuse Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams of directly plagiarising lyrics or phrases. They have claimed that one of the best-selling singles of all time “imitated” the style and feel of Gaye’s 1977 disco hit “Got to Give It Up”. In court, Williams said that as a co-writer of the song, he “made it… late ’70s feel”, while Thicke testified that he had little input into the songwriting. The case concluded in 2018 with the Gaye family being paid a 5 million USD settlement, plus an additional 50% share of future royalties.

Since that case, it appears that several stars have pre-empted the controversy by acknowledging people whose work may have influenced their songs. Such was the case with Taylor Swift, who shared credit with Right Said Fred after the chorus of their 2017 song “Look What You Made Me Do” followed the same rhythmic pattern as the band’s catchy 1991 single “I’m Too Sexy”. Ed Sheeran did likewise with the writers of TLC’s 1999 song “No Scrubs” after fans discovered similarities with his 2017 single “Shape Of You”.

In January 2018, Lana Del Rey claimed that Radiohead had sued her over alleged similarities between their debut single “Creep” and her song “Get Free” from her 2017 album Lust for Life. The band’s label Warner/Chappell has denied this, but confirmed that it is seeking credit for “all the authors” of “Creep”. The Guardian interviewed a professional composer to analyse the songs, who noted that the chords used are rare in pop music and that the melodies bear an uncanny resemblance, although the similarities are not intentional. Ironically, Radiohead has also been accused of plagiarism for “Creep” because of a similar chord progression to The Hollies‘ 1974 song “The Air That I Breathe”. The band eventually split royalties and co-writing credits with Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood.