Music has been around for thousands of years, present in every culture to some degree. It can be expressful, resonating with people as an artform with open interpretations, layers of storytelling, technical creativity, and emotions across many genres. However, some musicians have been exposed as thieves, stealing structures of music from earlier artists. Where can the line between plagiarism and derivative work be drawn?
Music has always been influenced by past works, and musicians have a latent pressure to appeal to listener’s ingrained tastes while keeping a signature originality to their music. However, due to the way copyrights work, it is subjective on how much one artist can take from another. Copyright does not protect the message or emotion of a song, only the structure, akin to how many paintings can have a common feeling or story but only one can have it’s layout, as an artist cannot simply copy the older version’s structure without appearing like a thief. Music works the same way, and it’s structure is protected by similar laws surrounding the progression of notes. However, western music has a limit to it’s melodies, and chords don’t appeal unless they share notes across their harmony. Melodies are often repeated and psychologically ingrained into listeners, especially with common instruments and messages associated with popular genres, delivered across mediums such as streaming or radio which favor the popular, repeating a cycle of structurally similar music being delivered into listeners, repeating the cycle of how music is listened to. This limit has led to many court battles between artist’s families from decades ago suing newer artists for plagiarism, such as the recent Robin Thicke vs. Marvin Gaye lawsuit where Thicke had lost millions over their similarities.
Of course artists deserve protection under copyright laws and shouldn’t be stolen from, but what an older artist would consider their own creation can have a structure used centuries ago, and not technically be their original work. Music can be varied in innumerable forms, but genres are bound to have overlap, whether it be the same message or structure, and respecting the boundaries while building on past artist’s work can be grueling, especially with how music today can be pushed for profit instead of expanding the medium. It’s important to remember where one’s ideas come from, while giving a unique twist not heard before.
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