How similar can a song be before there's copyright issues?

Nuclearfishin

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
929
I've done some searching and couldn't find the specific answer. My questions is, how close does a song need to be to another before there's copyright infringement? In my situation, the lyrics and melody are totally different/new (and the music also), but there's only so many chord progressions. Let's say I write a song based on a 1-4-5 progression in G, there's probably a thousand other songs that also do that. What constitutes new material vs. copying? Assume for simplicity that there's no doubt my lyrics and melody are original. Can chord progressions be copyrighted?

As an example, the four chord song in the video below, the lyrics/melody may be a little different, but basic chord progression is the same. This seems like a gray area. Any advice (hopefully based on law/fact)?

 

loudboy

Member
Messages
27,316
I don't know if it is that cut and dried......how did G Harrison lose a lawsuit over My Sweet Lord/He's So Fine? It certainly wasn't about lyrical content?
Melody.

The song consists of lyric and melody.

Riffs are probably a grey area, I don't think you could get away with putting a different melody and lyric over "Heartbreaker."
 

A-Bone

Montonero, MOY, Multitudes
Platinum Supporting Member
Messages
102,465
Chord progressions are not protected by music composition copyright per se, which as suggested above covers lyrics and melodic content. Obviously, since instrumental music is copyrightable, this does not mean that only vocal melody is covered by copyright.


A copyright lawsuit involves some basic determinations. First, that the infringed song was copyrightable (meaning it was an original composition and it was fixed in some medium, written down, recorded, etc.).


Second, the plaintiff typically has to demonstrate that the infringing defendant had access to that copyrighted work. This can be done either through direct evidence or circumstantial evidence. In the case of Harrison and "He's So Fine", for instance, the ubiquity of that earlier hit by the Chiffons coupled with Harrison's being steeped in rock and roll of that period was enough to establish that he was familiar with the earlier song without the need of proof of the first time he heard it through evidence or testimony. Equally, even absent proof of access, it is possible for a work to be found to be legally infringing if the similarity between the two is "so striking as to preclude the possibility that the plaintiff and defendant independently arrived at the same result."


In this sense, the alleged infringing work must be strikingly similar to the earlier work. Striking similarity in this sense is a term of art in copyright law, and stands for the proposition that the works are so similar that this could not have been the result of coincidence, independent creation, or some earlier common source. That is, the more recent work could only exist in its form because of the prior, copyrighted work.


And in addition to that, courts will also weigh the substantial similarity of the two works. This is the term courts use to determine if the copied work has copied so much of the earlier work that it rises above de minimis use (a small passage or trivial appropriation like a quote) and to the level of infringement. And there is no hard and fast rule for what determines a small or trivial passage, so I suspect a hook or riff could be infringing owing to its prominence within a song, even if that hook or riff is small compared to the composition as a whole.


I can imagine a circumstance where someone lifted an entire musical arrangement, so beyond just chord progression, I mean all instrumentation, timing, performance idiosyncracies, and musical passages (verses, bridge,choruses) while replacing the lyrics and melody and still being held to be infringing due to striking and substantial similarity of the two works. That having been said, I have a hard time imagining a copyright infringement lawsuit hinging on chord progression. There are only so many sonorous combinations of chords in a practical sense, particularly in 1-4-5 style compositions.
 

flatfinger

Member
Messages
2,145
You have to remember that if push comes to shove you would find yourself in s court room and that it then becomes subject to variables like judge and jury. Some times a cup of hot coffe in your lap can net you millions , other times you get a lap full of legal bills for your trouble ( unless your shark took your case on cotingency; then you just lost allot of time and aggrevation)






.......
 

AlexF

Member
Messages
963
The whole thing is a joke, it depends on the parties, the country, the lawyers, the judges, the relative strenght of the parties and which way the wind is blowing. Some examples?
- Jud's Gallery won a lawsuit against Gary Moore over their song 'Nordrach' and 'Still Got the Blues' - bizarre when its obvious to anyone with half a brain that both rip off Autumn Leaves exactly. But then again Jud's were German and the lawsuit was in Germany.
- The best one I've yet heard - Allan Klein got every penny of the royalties for 'Bitter Sweet Symphony' by the Verve as a condition of allowing it to be released (because he owned the rights to the Stones' 'The Last Time' from which it was sampled). Trouble is, 'The Last Time' was a direct rip off from Pops Staples.
- Page/Plant shamelessly ripped off 'Dazed and Confused' (amongst their serial rip-off career) from Jake Holmes. Due to their wealth, and Jake's lack of wealth, when challenged, they just basically said 'come after us if you think you can'.
 

Rotten

Gold Supporting Member
Messages
6,354
I keep thinking the Bruno Mars hit sounds a lot like Message in a Bottle by the Police. Felt the same way about Ghostbusters/Want a New Drug when it came out. Probably would need a credible expert witness to get anywhere.
 

mrbungel

Member
Messages
2,184
John Fogerty (CCR) got sued years ago,
allegedly because he stole HIS OWN song.

What??????????????

"Run Thru the Jungle"

became

"The Old Man Down the Road"

Saul Zaentz (spelling?)
Greedy, rich prick, now dead.
owned Fogerty at the time.

Now, the old f*** is dead,
and John owns his songs again.

Well documented over the years,
and Fogerty won!

A classic example of the OP's point.

Check out George Harrison "stealing"
"He's so Fine".
George lost and paid a **** load of money.
"My Sweet Lord!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Like Fogerty or Harrison would steal a song.
Couldn't write a thing by themselves!
Absolute ********.
 

loudboy

Member
Messages
27,316
Saul Zaentz (spelling?)
Greedy, rich prick, now dead.
owned Fogerty at the time.

Now, the old f*** is dead,
and John owns his songs again.
I highly doubt that Zaentz's estate willed those back to John...

Zaentz was a prick, but no more than most in the music business.

Fogerty willingly signed a crappy deal and became pathologically obsessed about it, refusing to play the songs for years.

He was never forbidden to play them.

That may have cost him the entry into the upper echelons of the Classic Rock Pantheon, due to CCR vanishing from both live and radio performances for 15 years, when the book was being written.

He's still one of the greatest rock artists the US has produced...
 

thedroid

Member
Messages
3,071
I've done some searching and couldn't find the specific answer. My questions is, how close does a song need to be to another before there's copyright infringement? In my situation, the lyrics and melody are totally different/new (and the music also), but there's only so many chord progressions. Let's say I write a song based on a 1-4-5 progression in G, there's probably a thousand other songs that also do that. What constitutes new material vs. copying? Assume for simplicity that there's no doubt my lyrics and melody are original. Can chord progressions be copyrighted?

As an example, the four chord song in the video below, the lyrics/melody may be a little different, but basic chord progression is the same. This seems like a gray area. Any advice (hopefully based on law/fact)?

It's not a gray area at all. You can't copyright a chord progression.

What some people are pointing out is that you also can't stop someone from suing you. And if you go to trial, the decision will be in the hands of a jury. But the answer to your question is still that you can't copyright a chord progression.

So stop worrying and write your song.
 

BKL71

Member
Messages
1,432
Just the other day I heard Joe Jackson's "Breaking Us In Two" and I wondered how how he was never sued for basically ripping off Badfinger's "Day After Day."
 

bluesjunior

Member
Messages
5,941
Funny this thread came up. I bought a double CD the other day by Howlin' Wolf called The Real Folk Blues and More Real Folk Blues and found at least 7-9 of the tracks had been ripped off into others by white bands in the mid 60's - mid 70's period. I wonder if Wolf ever sued?.
 




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