The following MBW op/ed comes from Eamonn Forde, a long-time music industry journalist and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig.
Back before he made some of his more outré views public, Morrissey was a celebrated lyricist of great dexterity, depth and wit. In Cemetry [sic] Gates on The Queen Is Dead he sang of the difficulties weighing down on creativity and originality in the arts, warning writers not to “plagiarise or take ‘on loan’” the words of others.
There is, he cautioned, “always someone, somewhere with a big nose who knows” and they will take great joy in catching you out.
In music, those big noses used to belong to tenacious copyright lawyers – their oversized nostrils twitching with the scent of a potential kill – who clung dearly to the maxim of “where there’s a hit, there’s a writ”.
Even heavyweight geniuses are not exempt from fear of being called in front of the bench. Paul McCartney was so convinced he must have lifted Yesterday from somewhere that he went around playing it to people and asking them if he had subconsciously stolen it. A song that perfect couldn’t just appear out of nowhere, as if handed to him by some holy entity? Could it? (Side note: this story indirectly became the spark for the 2019 film Yesterday so it wasn’t all a gift from Heaven.)
Coming a cropper after accusations of creative larceny can cause untold damage to a reputation – but where it hurts most is in the wallet. Just ask George Harrison (My Sweet Lord), Robin Thicke and Pharrell (Blurred Lines), Radiohead (Creep), Oasis (Shakermaker, Hello, Step Out), Elastica (something of a “motif” on their debut album), Flaming Lips (Fight Test) and more.
The recent precedent set by the Blurred Lines case spooked Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars so much about the DNA similarities between Uptown Funk and The Gap Band’s Oops Upside Your Head that they took the move to preemptively settle with its five writers whereby they got a 17% share.
Sometimes artists must perform an act of contrition like John Lennon in 1973 who had to record three songs controlled by Big Seven Music after the publishers decided that Come Together was perhaps a little bit too similar to Chuck Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me. Rather than litigate, the strategy was to use this to reawaken a catalog.
The case of Come Together is perhaps the start of the slow move towards a more, let’s say, accommodating approach to plagiarism and an increasingly benign acceptance that it is an occupational hazard for songwriters.
We saw it all move into a gentler gear in 2014 when Sam Smith’s Stay With Me was deemed to lean a little too heavily on Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down. Petty quietly worked out a settlement and just kindly shrugged that these things happen – no need to drag it through the courts for years in a manner that makes everyone look bad.
“A cynic might say Allen Klein got the 22 best commercial years of Bitter Sweet Symphony and Richard Ashcroft was handed the dust at the end of the long tail of its earning potential.”
Or there can be reparations made after the fact where a decision is reversed to cut the alleged infringer some financial and licensing slack.
“Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” asked William Rees-Mogg (himself interpolating Alexander Pope – see, everyone is at it) in The Times about Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ drugs bust in 1967. “Who takes a sledgehammer to a copyright nut?” almost asked Richard Ashcroft in 1997 with regard to Bitter Sweet Symphony. The answer, it turns out, was Allen Klein who controlled a huge chunk of the Jagger/Richards catalogue and got them the complete songwriting credits for The Verve’s hit.
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 magnanimous gesture from Mick and Keith, who have also agreed that they are happy for the writing credit to exclude their names and all their royalties derived from the song they will now pass to me,” Ashcroft said at the time. “Oh, lord!” (OK, I made that last bit up.)
This was seen as a benevolent act, but the more cynical might say Klein got the 22 best years of earnings out of the song and Ashcroft was handed the dust at the end of the long tail of its earning potential.
This year alone we have seen this more measured and, possibly, altruistic approach increase.
When Lorde released her single Solar Power (co-written by Jack Antonoff) in June, it was quickly jumped on as being a cut-and-shut of Freedom ’90 by George Michael and Loaded by Primal Scream. Soon after its release she told Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1 that, “Loaded is 100% the original blueprint for this, but we arrived at it organically.” She added that Bobby Gillespie “gave us his blessing” to carry on.
Soon after, the George Michael estate played a similar hand.
“We are aware that many people are making a connection between Freedom ’90 by George Michael and Solar Power by Lorde which George would have been flattered to hear,” the estate said in a statement. “So on behalf of one great artist to a fellow artist, we wish her every success with the single.”
Not long after the Lorde case, Olivia Rodrigo found the plagiarism finger wagged in her direction as people gleefully pointed out the similarity between Brutal and Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up.
Costello gallantly stepped forward to defend Rodrigo. “It’s how rock & roll works,” he wrote in a Twitter reply to one particular accuser. “You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy.” He added two hashtags (#subterreaneanhomesickblues #toomuchmonkeybusiness), referencing the Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry source material he drew on to write his 1978 hit.
It does not always follow that having plagiarism lawyers constantly sniffing around will derail a career. If you can front it out, you can turn this bug into a feature of your career.
Take Oasis who, by their own repeated admission, built the bulk of their career around the Lennon/McCartney songbook. They even followed The Beatles’ own lead on 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 feel fine,” from D’you Know What I Mean? being the most brazen). Their biggest song is named after a George Harrison album, FFS.
Should it ever happen, one almost expects a comeback Oasis single to arrive with a chorus that goes: “Hey, Jude, don’t let me down, get back and come together in my yellow submarine eight days a week, but don’t bother me or the taxman, oooohhhhhh.” Naturally the song will be called I Really Like The Beatles Pop Group From Liverpool (They Are Fab Gear) Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.
Oasis also experienced the high farce moment of being sued by Neil Innes for basing a chunk of Whatever on How Sweet To Be An Idiot. Is someone plagiarising the work of the songwriter behind The Rutles as meta as it gets?
One does wonder in the Lorde case if Bobby Gillespie was wary of pursuing a public plagiarism suit as it might send up red flags with regard to certain slices of the Primal Scream catalog.
One is also reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) tale of A Big Rock Band a few decades back ‘borrowing’ melodies from Another Big Rock Band. They quietly agreed that a percentage of the publishing 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 twigged. This was done as the member of Another Big Rock Band was terrified that if they sued someone for plagiarism it could declare open season on their own compositions.
Those big-nosed lawyers will be unlikely to turn down the chance of “free money” in the future, but maybe they will do so without making such a media song and dance out of it.
This could be the case with some of these incidents where a more dignified (but backdoor) strategy is taken and it is quietly settled so that everyone can enjoy the spoils and no one looks like the bad guy or has their songwriting chops roundly mocked.
“Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ,” could give way to, “Where there’s a hit, just quietly take a bit.”Music Business Worldwide