The following MBW op / ed is from Eamonn Forde, a longtime journalist in the music industry and author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig.
Before making some of his more eccentric views public, Morrissey was a celebrated lyric poet of great dexterity, depth, and wit. In the cemetery [sic] Gates on The Queen Is Dead, he sang of the difficulties weighing down creativity and originality in the arts, and cautioned writers not to “plagiarize or ‘borrow'” the words of others.
There is, he warned, “always someone, somewhere with a big nose, who knows,” and they will take great pleasure in catching you.
In music, those big noses once belonged to stubborn copyright lawyers – their oversized nostrils twitched with the smell of possible murder – who held fast to the maxim: “Where there’s a hit, there’s a rule.”
Even heavyweight geniuses are not exempt from the fear of being called to the bank. Paul McCartney was so convinced he must have picked up Yesterday somewhere that he went around playing it to people and asking them if he’d stolen it unknowingly. A song that was so perfect couldn’t just appear out of nowhere, as if it were being handed to it from a sacred being? It can? (Side note: this story indirectly sparked the 2019 film Yesterday, so it wasn’t all a godsend.)
If you come to the Cropper after accusations of creative theft, it can cause immeasurable damage to your image – but what hurts the most is your wallet. Just ask George Harrison (My Sweet Lord), Robin Thicke and Pharrell (Blurred Lines), Radiohead (Creep), Oasis (Shakermaker, Hello, Step Out), Elastica (something like a “motif” on their debut album), Flaming Lips (Fight test) and more.
The recent precedent set by the Blurred Lines case shocked Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars so much about the DNA similarities between The Gap Band’s Uptown Funk and Oops Upside Your Head that they dared to step up against its five authors Preventive to some, taking them a 17% share.
Sometimes artists have to perform an act of repentance like John Lennon in 1973, who had to record three Big Seven Music-controlled songs after publishers decided that Come Together was perhaps a little too similar to Chuck Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me. Instead of litigating, the strategy was to revive a catalog.
The case of Come Together may be the beginning of a slow development towards, say, more accommodating handling of plagiarism and an increasingly benevolent acceptance that this poses an occupational risk for songwriters.
We saw things move into a gentler course in 2014 when Sam Smith’s Stay With Me was leaned a little too heavily on Tom Petty’s I Wo’t Back Down. Petty has quietly worked out an agreement and just kindly shrugged her shoulders for these things to happen – you don’t have to drag them through the courts for years to make everyone look bad.
“A cynic might say that Allen Klein got the 22 best commercial years from Bitter Sweet Symphony and dusted Richard Ashcroft at the end of the long tail of his earning potential.”
Or reparations can be made retrospectively if a decision is reversed in order to close financial and licensing loopholes for the alleged infringer.
“Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” asked William Rees-Mogg (himself interpolated by Alexander Pope – you see, everyone is there) in The Times about Mick Jaggers and Keith Richards’ drug bust in 1967. “Who takes a sledgehammer to a copyright maniac?” Sweet Symphony asked. As it turned out, the answer was Allen Klein, who controlled a large portion of the Jagger / Richards catalog and got them all of the songwriting credits for the hit from The Verve.
In 2019, however, the Stones returned the rights to Ashcroft. “This remarkable and life-affirming turn of events was made possible by a kind and generous gesture from Mick and Keith, who also agreed that they are happy to exclude their names and all of their royalties from the song they want Now leave it me, ”said Ashcroft at the time. “Oh God!” (OK, I made up the last piece.)
This was viewed as a benevolent act, but the more cynical might say that Klein got the 22 best years of income out of the song and dusted Ashcroft at the end of the long tail of his earning potential.
This year alone we have taken this measured and possibly altruistic approach.
When Lorde released her single Solar Power (co-written by Jack Antonoff) in June, it was quickly perceived as a cut-and-shut of Freedom ’90 by George Michael and Loaded by Primal Scream. Shortly after it was released, she told Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1 that “Loaded is 100% the original draft for it, but we got to it organically.” She added that Bobby Gillespie “gave us his blessing” to keep going.
Soon after, George Michael’s estate played a similar hand.
“We understand that a lot of people are making a connection between George Michael’s Freedom ’90 and Lorde’s Solar Power that George would have flattered,” the property said in a statement. “So on behalf of a great artist for an artist colleague, we wish her every success with the single.”
Not long after the Lorde case, Olivia Rodrigo found the plagiarism finger waving in her direction as people cheerfully pointed out the similarity between Brutal and Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up.
Costello stepped forward gallantly to defend Rodrigo. “This is how rock and roll works,” he wrote in a Twitter response to a specific prosecutor. “You’re taking the shards of another thrill and making a brand new toy.” He added two hashtags (#subterreaneanhomesickblues #toomuchmonkeybusiness), referring to the source material used by Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry when he wrote his 1978 hit.
It doesn’t always follow that constant snooping around plagiarism attorneys will ruin a career. If you can hide it, you can make this mistake a feature of your career.
Take Oasis, who, as they have repeatedly admitted, built most of their careers around the Lennon / McCartney songbook. They even followed the Beatles’ own leadership at Glass Onion (“I told you about Strawberry Fields … I told you about the walrus and me, man …”), with Noel Gallagher quoting Beatles song titles in his own songs (“The Fool on the hill and I’ll feel good ”, from D’you Know What I Mean? As the bold one). Her biggest song is named after a George Harrison album, FFS.
Should it ever happen, you’d almost expect a comeback single from Oasis with a chorus that says, “Hey, Jude, don’t let me down, come back and get together in my yellow sub eight days a week, but don’t harass me or the tax officer, oooohhhhhh. ”Of course the song is called I Really Like The Beatles Pop Group From Liverpool (They Are Fab Gear) Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.
Oasis also experienced a high farce moment when Neil Innes was sued for basing part of Whatever on How Sweet To Be An Idiot. Is someone plagiarizing the work of the songwriter behind The Rutles as best they can?
In the Lorde case, one wonders whether Bobby Gillespie was cautious about pursuing a public plagiarism lawsuit as doing so could send red flags regarding certain parts of the Primal Scream catalog.
One is also reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) story of a big rock band that “borrowed” tunes from another big rock band a few decades ago. They tacitly agreed that a percentage of the release would go to the main songwriter in Another Big Rock Band, but their name would not be officially listed as a co-writer in case anyone had any doubts. This was done because the member of Another Big Rock Band was afraid that if they sue someone for plagiarism, they would declare the open season for their own compositions.
These big-nosed lawyers are unlikely to turn down the chance of “free money” in the future, but maybe they will without making such a media song and dancing out of it.
This could be the case with some of these incidents where a more dignified (but back door) strategy is followed and quietly governed so that everyone can enjoy the loot and no one looks like the bad guy or their songwriting chops get ridiculed all around.
“Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ”, could give way, “Where there’s a hit, just take a little.”Music business worldwide