Sampling or Stealing?

Imitation is said to be the ultimate form of flattery. From everyday consumers who fashion their wardrobes after their favorite pop culture icon to movie stars who try to evoke the lore of actors before them, people do it all the time.

Musicians are no different.

As artists who use chords and beats to paint their auditory masterpieces, musicians are rarely without predecessors. Music, as an art form, inherently lends itself to influence.

But there is a fine line between inspiration and imitation.

Over the years, the music industry has endured several scandals involving copyright infringement. Joining those ranks of alleged offenders, Britney Spears and Lady Antebellum have recently been accused of ripping off former acts.

Spears rang in the New Year with controversy that involved neither her crotch, nor her spot in the public eye: Country duo, The Bellamy Brothers, said that lyrics from her new single, “Hold It Against Me,” are derived from their 1970s classic “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body.” On the other hand, Lady Antebellum is accused of taking the melody of “Need You Now” from the Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky.”

“This is not a new issue, it’s something that comes up a lot and has over time,” explains Joseph Russomanno, an ASU media law professor who dabbles in music himself.

In Spears’ case, the melody is contestable. A heavy bass line and electronic whirls drive the pop queen’s dance song, whereas the Bellamy Brothers' ballad is a slow-moving country ditty.

The duo claims that Spears’ lyric, “If I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me,” is too similar to their hook, which begs, “If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me.”

Ironically, the quote is not a Bellamy original, but one made popular by comedian Groucho Marx.

Lady Antebellum’s tune, on the other hand, bears significant resemblance when played side by side.

Other examples of lapses in originality have involved Vanilla Ice’s 1990 hit single, “Ice Ice Baby” and Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Alternative rock band, The Verve, also faced a suit for their use of an Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of The Rolling Stones song, “The Last Time,” in their 1997 hit “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”

While it is not uncommon for future musicians to be influenced by other artists and their work, at some point, artistic expression should have some original concepts.

“From a practical standpoint, it’s a very difficult issue and a very difficult concept,” Russomanno says. “The question becomes the extent to which that influence manifests itself.”

On a legal basis, Russomanno explains that the law evaluates the issue case-by-case. Copyright law revolves around four major elements: the purpose and character of the unauthorized use, the nature of the copyrighted work, how much of the work was used and the effect the authorized use has on a potential market.

At the same time, Russomanno points out that there are only 12 root notes in music that chords are based off of.

“Of all the millions of songs that are written, how many different combinations of those notes can there really be,” Russomanno asks. “There is bound to be some similarity, even when there is no intent to copy.”

Historically, musicians of yesteryear have rightfully been up in arms when their work appears behind someone else’s name. It is, after all, a form of plagiarism. Often times in music, the concern is that an artist is getting monetarily compensated for unauthorized use of a melody or lyric.

The digital age in music offers consumers a much easier path to finding older songs and purchasing them online. So what will the future look like then when the next generation of musicians record in the digital age? Will it not only be conventional practice to sample other work but a generally accepted exercise? That is yet to be seen.

“It will be interesting to visit the issue in 10 to 15 years and see if succeeding generations will have that mind set to begin with,” Russomanno says.

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