Song Copyright and suing. Is any song really original?

The suing culture of the 21st Century is getting out of hand. Here we look at Song Copyright, writing original songs and when it’s right (and wrong) to be suing people over your work.

There are many examples out there of famous artists being sued for copying other people’s songs; the latest being Dienel who is suing Justin Bieber and producer Skrillex  for ‘sampling’ or copying a vocal riff from their song ‘Ring the Bell’ in the hit record ‘Sorry’.  Well, no offence to Dienel but I have never heard the song ‘Ring the Bell’ before in my life even though I now see it was highly praised by Rolling Stone magazine; and therefore had I come up with a similar riff I would not have been deliberately copying that track, but that wouldn’t have stopped me being sued of course, because how do you prove what you’ve never heard?

Skrillex has reponded with the video below, which shows how they came about getting that vocal riff – and it clearly shows some simple original sample making, coming across something that just sounds great, which is a staple part of writing original songs.

So I pose the question “Is any song really original?”

When we talk about song copyright and who owns original works I think it’s important to realise that even if you think you’re writing original songs, you are actually re-ordering and re-making many different songs that you’ve heard in your lifetime depending on your culture, background and the types of music you’ve been exposed to.   We learn from others and write in similar ways – you can see this as far back in history as you care to go.  Nobody was writing pop songs in the Baroque period,  they were writing baroque music and in the classical period they wrote similar music to each other and in the 80s the whole feel of chart music was different to how it is now.  So why is everyone suing everybody else all the time?!

When somebody actually uses a sample from somebody else’s song without permission, or copies the whole backing to a song as has happened before then suing is a proper remedy for recompense, but if you are writing original songs by yourself or with other people you are bringing together everyone’s experiences and backgrounds to make an original work and sometimes it’s impossible not to write something similar to a song that is already out there.

Imagine the following scenario

Four people are writing original songs together.  Each person is chipping in with ideas and one of them introduces a melody (let’s say similar to ‘Ring the Bell’); and they do so because it’s come naturally to them, they have heard ‘Ring the Bell’ before but they are not consciously trying to copy it.  The other three in the group have not heard the song before and love what they are making so the song gets finished and just to be sure that no song copyright has been infringed they use an app like Shazam to check if their song comes up as something else.  It won’t, because as a whole the song is totally different, so it gets released.  Should someone be suing them for this?  I’ll leave that up to you but perhaps it would be worthwhile to point you to the following video of multiple hit records that all use exactly the same chord pattern below:

If you are worried about your own song copyright issues, then be assured; if you are in the UK your work is automatically copyright to you when you write it.  You can of course send a copy to yourself or make sure you have time-stamped edits showing on your computer to prove your ownership and when it was written/recorded.   In the US you can pay to copyright your song and have an original record of it.  Simply search ‘how to apply for a copyright’ or ‘how to copyright your music’ and you will find links to assist you with this (but remember it’s not necessary in the UK!)

The suing culture

It really saddens me that in this day and age we live in a culture where people want to sue for everything.  The UK never used to be like that, it was almost unheard of to take somebody to court but now it’s becoming as commonplace as the US and there is not likely to be a reverse trend in this.   So the best thing you can do to protect yourself is remember the following:

1. You cannot copyright a name

The title of your song is open for anyone to use, unless it’s completely made up like Obolugofalawalabingbong of course.

2. If you want to know how to copyright something yourself

the best way of doing it is to send a registered post copy of it to yourself and don’t open it.  Then if you ever find yourself in court, you can show when you came up with the ideas.  You can also ensure that your computer keeps time stamped edits of songs if you’re using programs like Cubase or Pro Tools.

3. If you are writing in a group

you could have a signed agreement on who wrote each part and what your splits will be.  Then you may not be held responsible if one of your co-writers introduced a well known hook that you’d never heard of.

4. Be prepared to fight your corner

If you haven’t copied something then don’t be bullied into paying up.  Remember, nothing is truly original.  To be sued you have to have done something that could be more than generic coincidence or independent creation.

If you are thinking of taking someone to court over your work then consider carefully if you have been copied.  If your track was a mega hit with millions of views, it’s far more likely to have been copied than if you’ve released something on YouTube and it has 450 views for example; but again if someone has blatantly stolen your work in more than a coincidental way there is nothing wrong with standing up for your rights and the court process is a lot easier than you might imagine; except that Judges may not be used to hearing music cases and you’d do well to hire a music lawyer to ensure you don’t get fobbed off by the Judiciary through lack of understanding the music industry, royalties etc. no disrespect to them intended.