At the end of July, a federal jury found Katy Perry and her collaborators Juicy J, Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Cirkut, Sarah Hudson, and Capitol Records were liable for $2.8 million in damages for plagiarizing Christian rapper Flame, aka Marcus Gray. At issue was Perry’s 2013 song “Dark Horse,” which Blaze, along with co-writers Emanuel Lambert and Chike Ojukwu, asserted was a copy of their 2008 track “Joyful Noise.” Both songs share a descending synth ostinato with evenly spaced B and C notes, but the two songs are in different keys and tempos. The songs also have different melodies, chord progressions, bass lines and drum grooves. So the jury’s decision to find liability over a common minor key progression has created concern among musicologists, intellectual property experts, and music producers, who claim it sets a dangerous precedent where the “core building blocks of music” could be walled away behind a copyright.
There are 12 different notes/roots in the chromatic tonal system, and four basic triads for each root—minor, major, diminished, and augmented. So, just starting with basic math, there are thousands of possible chords depending on the instrument and the number of notes within the chord. If one plays any of those chords in succession, this expands even further the number of possible chord progressions. However, even though a taste in music is subjective, most of those chord progressions are probably going to sound like shit. Just like there are all sorts of ingredients which are palatable and can be eaten, they have to be thrown together in the right sequence and amount to have the most pleasurable taste. This is why only a certain number of chord progressions are ubiquitous across pop music, with many of the biggest hit singles sharing the same ones. And it’s for this reason usually only a song’s lyrics and melody are protected by copyright.
However, in 2015 the lawsuit over the song “Blurred Lines” shifted things a bit. Marvin Gaye’s estate charged that T.I., Pharrell Williams, and Robin Thicke had copied the feel and style of “Got to Give It Up.” A jury ordered Gaye’s heirs be paid $5.3 million in compensation, even though no specific rhythm, melody, harmony, or lyrics were copied, just a prior admission by Thicke in an interview that he wanted to copy the “feel” of Gaye’s song. The decision led to the same consternation among musicians, academics, and critics who claimed it would have a “chilling effect” on music.
So I thought it would be interesting to debate where the line is between creativity and theft, as well as look at some of the historical examples of musical plagiarism, along with the ones which never ended up in court but have been the stuff of fan arguments.