How can music be scrutinized for plagiarism?

Let’s say I discover a song written years ago by an artist virtually unknown to anyone outside of Laos or some place, and then rerecord it under my own name. How can my song be traced back to the original? Is it only by pure luck, maybe if an immigrant from Laos makes his way over and recognizes my plagiarized song playing on the radio?

Or lets say a more popular song is rearranged to the point where it’s only recognizable by the melody, but no one else knows that; as far as anyone is concerned, it’s just a coincidence. When does coincidence become plagiarism within music?

Assuming that your song isn’t a huge international hit, that is the most likely way it could happen.

I’m also pretty sure that new databases might make it possible to identify plagiarism, possibly by using the same types of software that can identify songs for listeners.

Well, that’s for a judge (or jury) to decide. I’m pretty sure that the plaintiff would have to be able to show that the defendant had access to, or knew of, the work supposedly being plagiarized. I seem to recall Britney Spears or someone getting that ruling.

Wikipedia has a decent article on musical plagiarism.

This site has musical infingement cases and offers comparisons of the songs:


And there’s a section of this book chapter that covers substantial similarity doctrine as it applies to music:

All of the music files on that site are .ram (RealMedia) files. Macs can’t play them.

It is a very exhaustive list, tho. Just wish I could hear some of the contested bits.

Oy! I wish I knew a workaround.

There isn’t one, except to download the files, then try and convert them. The problems are that 1) I don’t want to get a converter program and 2) I think .ram files are really just embedded links to the actual .rm files, and that’s a lot of hassle to go thru. That website should stop using a format that has been outdated for 10 years now. Nobody uses RealPlayer anymore, ffs.

Let’s not make this a referendum about web design or audio file formats, but FWIW, I agree with you. Bummer you can’t check it out.

Works for me. I got a Mac. I also seem to have downloaded Real Player once upon a time, so just download RealPlayer and you’ll be good to go.

I’ve always wondered about the inverse of this issue: what if I dream up a great song; how can I find out if I haven’t accidentally re-invented a someone else’s song (or a reasonably similar one). Even if it’s a coincidence, I don’t want the hassles of a plagiarism suit.

It’s pretty well impossible, as far as I know, to do that definitively. So you could be sued for a song you wrote even if you’d lived in a music-free society and never heard any music at all. Of course, you’d win the case because the plaintiff would have to prove that you had access to the song. But that’s not what you seem to be asking.

Pretty sure Macs were able to play .ram files even way back when people didn’t loathe .ram files.

You’re sort of in the ballpark. Here’s a for-instance. I have never listened to a Britney Spears CD since I never listen to pop stations. Now I’m a clever guy (for this example) and I’m handy with a melody. I come up with a ditty that sounds really good. Suppose I’ve independently stumbled on the melody of one of BS’s hits. I can claim that I’ve never listened to her stuff but since she’s a star her music has been everywhere. Now I don’t want to be sued, because I’ll have to pay a lawyer. I was hoping there’d be a way to catch this sort of “coincidence” before I even spend a minute in the studio. Some sort of riff/melody analyzer/cross-referencer.

Maybe you could just hold your iPhone up to the speaker and see if it recognizes it? (LOL)

We’re not that far away from software that will be able to transcribe every single note in a sound file. And when that happens, it will be the Golden Age of plagiarism lawsuits. George Harrison didn’t intentionally copy He’s So Fine, and as far as I can tell the borrowing was mainly a three note motif “…he’s so fine” vs. “…my sweet Lord”. The Rolling Stones, pretty talented songwriters themselves, accidentally borrowed a different four note motif from K.D. Lang’s song Constant Craving for their song Where’s My Baby, and wound up splitting songwriting credit…and royalties.

So innocence is apparently no longer a defense. Song owners (as opposed to actual songwriters) are going to process their entire catalogs and compare it to everyone else’s entire catalogs and the suits are going to fly. Songwriters are going to discover that their recent pop hit accidentally duplicated a portion of a melody of a little ditty from Golddiggers of 1937. They will only find this out when they get served. They will have a choice between waging a court case where they will have to try to prove that they have never stumbled across the supposed “original” while channel surfing, or giving half their royalties to some leech of a descendant of the original songwriter.

It’s gonna get ugly.

Right. I think there may be limited opportunities to do this sort of analysis (the iphone thing isn’t that far off the mark) and more will develop. The problem will always be that you won’t have a complete database. It’d be easier if you were willing to limit it to music that you’d listened to, and you only listened to your own CD collection or something. :wink: But once you step out of the house, you’d have to account for songs the kid across the street plays with his garage band, world music that the New Agers next door listen to, movie soundtracks. . . so you’d have a fundamental incompleteness to manage. I’m not sure how you’d account for that.

I know what you mean here, but technically “innocence” was never a defense. To win a copyright infringement case, you’ve got to prove copying, which includes access, but the copying can be accidental.

I am not a lawyer. In my example, if someone writes a song tomorrow, and a company that owns a huge catalog of songs finds that some portion of the new song matches a portion of one of their songs…what is the likely outcome? If they can show that the song was on TV at some point during the life of the young songwritr, is that enough to prove exposure?

I haven’t looked at those cases in a while.

In the "He’s So Fine Case,

He admitted he knew about the song. But the judge didn’t believe he intentionally copied it.

So in that case, access wasn’t contested. Beyond that, I’ll have to get back to you.

Three Boys Music Corp. v. Bolton, 212 F.3d 477 (9th Cir. 2000)