Home > Editorials > Tribute or Theft?: A Look Into Popular Music Sound A Likes.

Tribute or Theft?: A Look Into Popular Music Sound A Likes.

Every artist seems to “steal” or “borrow” a little bit of their work.

I mean, it’s hard not to when music is so vast and intricate–everyone is influenced by everyone else–artists take bits and pieces of what they witness and mold it to make it into their own.

However, this isn’t always the case. Their seems to be a fine line between homage’ and just down right theft. That fine line has always interested me.

When thinking on this, topics such as sampling come to mind–a technique mainly used in hip hop where the vocals are unique but the instrumental is taken from an entirely different song.

This technique can be done well, such as the case with Kanye West, whose samples contain his own signature touch such as pitched and sped vocals and it can also be done poorly –such as the case with Vanilla Ice which we’ll touch on later in this article.

So what makes a song unique? And where is that line between copyright infringement and tribute? In this article we will look at some of the better known “sound alikes” out there today.

George Harrison vs. The Chiffons

The Chiffons, a du wop group from the 1960’s, released one of their more popular songs, He’s So Fine, in 1963. The track climbed the charts and stayed on the Billboard Top 100 four consecutive weeks. The all girl group who went head to head with acts such as The Supremes held their water during that era and met much success throughout the 60’s.

Seven years later, George Harrison was emerging back on to the music scene fresh from his journey into Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna!).

Upon his return, Harrison released the album All Things Must Pass and one of the most notable songs on the album was a track entitled My Sweet Lord, a love song dedicated to Sri Krishna, whom Harrison was a strong devotee.

Though something occurred that shook things up for “the quiet one”of the fab four. The Chiffons Label, Bright Tunes Music, noticed a striking similarity in My Sweet Lord, and that  similarity was that it was almost the complete same song as He’s So Fine!

This dispute led to a lengthy law suit that lasted over 10 years, where Harrison had one of the most memorable defenses to date used in a copyright case: Subconscious infringement.

Harrison’s legal team claimed that Harrison did not intentionally steal the song–and the striking similarities actually came from Harrison hearing the track and then subsequently forgetting that he had heard it. The tune was stored in his subconscious so when he wrote My Sweet Lord he thought it was his original work –but his “creativity” was actually just a subconscious rendering of He’s So Fine that he had heard a decade ago.

Although it sounds trippy, it’s an interesting argument that’s also been reported in other cases too. I remember taking a fiction course a few years ago and my teacher told stories of how new writers would bring in stories that would contain bits and pieces that were very similar to published novels that they have read. He claimed that this was natural and that sometimes your brain will trick you into thinking you’re writing something new when you’re really just reaching into your memory. He urged us to be careful that we aren’t falling into that trap. The same trap Harrison claimed to have fell into.

However, when all was said in done–Harrison lost the case but ended up buying the rights to He’s So Fine which cost him $587,000.

This is one of my favorite cases for a few reasons.

I find the argument of subconcious infringement fascinating and it speaks multitudes about how our minds work–but also–both songs are great in their own right. My Sweet Lord contains beautiful lyrics, a guitar riff from Eric Clapton and a beautiful choral style backing vocal. He’s So Fine is also a great tune, one that is the epitome of du-wop music that reigned supreme in the 1960’s.

Above are the two tracks meshed together so you can hear them played over one another. The similarities are unreal and they match perfectly! The “hallelujah” of Harrison lines up perfectly with the “doo lang da lang” of The Chiffons. It’s a very eye well..ear.. opening. Take a listen.

Years later John Lennon also weighed in on the case, stating his doubt for the “subconscious infringment argument”, but whatever the case, I am very glad that both of these musicians penned such great pieces.

“He must have known, you know. He’s smarter than that. It’s irrelevant, actually—only on a monetary level does it matter. He could have changed a couple of bars in that song and nobody could ever have touched him, but he just let it go and paid the price. Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off.” -John Lennon, 1980 interview with Playboy Magazine, speaking on Harrison’s subconscious infringement defense.

Fergie vs. JJ Fad

When the track Fergalicious came out in 2006, most listeners were too busy trying to decipher the cryptic messages found within the song (we still aren’t sure what exactly fergalicious means) than to actually notice that the song was a blatant rip off of 80’s rap group JJ Fad and their track Super Sonic.

Fergie and The Black Eyed Peas didn’t mean to claim any authorship and used the track as a sample–but no royalties were ever given to the authors of Super Sonic. The unpaid royalties led to a lawsuit, from what I believe, has yet to go to court.

The Arabian Prince, author of the song, NWA producer and apparent royal bad ass, has claimed that Fergie’s label has denied payment on numerous occasions.

Once listening to the song the “fine line” we spoke about earlier comes back up. If you listen to the track not much is changed at all–even the rhythm of the lyrics are the exact same. (listen above!)

Usually when one samples a song they at least add their own flavor to it–and in this case her flavor was repeating the word “fergalicious” over and over again. Which unfortunately isn’t even enough be entertaining as it is legal.

Though, I must admit the song was a great sample to use. J.J Fad (Just Jammin’ Fresh And Def) was an all girl group whose style opened doors for groups such as Salt n Peppa and early TLC.

Super Sonic was a throwback to the days of Sugar Hill Gang and other old school rap greats. The song incorporates a laid back groove with a slow styled rap vocal. I can see the appeal in sampling this classic track–but I just think more could have came out of it if  if the lyrics weren’t a blatant knock off.

Vanilla Ice vs. Queen

We all have done it.

We turn on the radio and hear the signature bass line and for a few bars we aren’t sure if Queen’s Under Pressure or Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby is about to play.

This is also a textbook case of copyright infringement.

To prove infringment the alleged infringer must have had two things:

1) Access to the work that’s claimed to be copied.

2) The tracks must contain substantial similarity.

That knowledge alone made Vanilla Ice somewhat of a laughing stock when he gave interviews regarding his hit Ice, Ice, Baby.

Ice claimed that he did not owe Queen and David Bowie any money for sampling their legendary song, Under Pressure, because he added a “chh”.

Yes, a “chh”. The “chh” he is reffering to is one solitary cymbal hit–one instance of a closed hi hat in the track. He believes that this one closed hi-hat  added to every 16 bars is enough for him to not have to pay royalties. The one hi-hat doesn’t make it substantial any more.

If this is how copyright law works than everyone get ready for my debut album containing songs such as: Hit The Road, Murphy, Somewhere Under Or Around The Vicinity Of The Rainbow, the funk inspired I Feel Okay, and of course the sure fire hit Purple Fog.

Though, of course, this isn’t how copyright works and Vanilla Ice ended up paying Queen for the sample and started listing the late Queen frontman, Freddie Mercury, as the composer.

He also went on to state that the infamous “chh” quote was him trying to be humorous–but something about him makes me doubts that.

Granted, both songs have a strong legacy. Under Pressure is considered to be one of the best collaborations of all time–combining the legendary David Bowie with the equally  legendary Freddie Mercury. While Ice, Ice, Baby–although not as prestigious, was the first hip hop song to cross over into the pop charts and is one of the more memorable songs of the last 20 years.

I couldn’t find how much Queen was paid and if they even asked for money–or if it was done out of respect by Ice. I would assume the Queen catalog would be huge money for the rights–hundreds of thousands.

If Vanilla Ice did have to pay big bucks to sample the Queen catalog–it would explain why he was last seen on D-List shows such as The Surreal Life and Dancing On Ice.

Too harsh?

Nonetheless, I’ve included an interesting mash up of the two tracks to show the similarities. It was actually kind of cool piecing them together and it’s a fun listen, if anything.

Chuck Berry vs. The Beach Boys

Chuck Berry was one of the innovators of early rock and roll music. His guitar playing combined elements of shout blues, jazz and gospel–a style that would ultimately turn into rock and roll. Berry has inspired everyone from the Beatles to Angus Young of AC/DC.. and apparently Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, too.

In 1958 Berry released a track entitled Sweet Little Sixteen. The song is about a young lady, referred to only as sweet little sixteen, and how men from all over the world want to come and dance with her.

Men from Boston, Pittsburgh P.A., in the heart of Texas, to the ‘frisco Bay..and so forth.

A few years later, in 1963, The Beach Boys came out with a song entitled Surfin’ USA. The song was about some guys that loved to surf. They loved to surf all over the country. They loved to surf in Del Mar, Manhattan, the Doheny Way, they loved to surf in Huntington, Californi-a, and just all over the place.

Yes, even the content of the songs were taken from one another. I mean, Pittsburgh, P.A … Californi-A. It’s like they weren’t even trying to be crafty at this point. Brian Wilson, writer of the song, claimed that the song wasn’t “stolen” but “inspired by”. Although it was “inspired by” Berry, Wilson claimed and wanted sole authorship.

Behind Wilsons back, his father and manager Murry Wilson, actually went and claimed Berry as the copyright owner without ever telling Wilson.

For 25 years Berry received authorship while Wilson did not–this caused a huge controversy, and now they are both listed as composers for the tune.

However, I feel as if it was blatant infringement even down to the use of listing off cities, and this may have been the motive behind Murry Wilson not wanting his son to receive royalties for the track.

Listen to them side by side above!

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article there seems to be numerous trends in the industry that can easily overlap when it comes to song writing–though sometimes it can a tribute –but other times it can just appear to be straight up theft. You be the judge.

Thank you for your views!

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