Many songwriters live with a paranoia of their songs being stolen. This is usually more of concern for beginning songwriters, and all content creators for that matter, than for those with some experience. The fact of the matter is that intentional copying of one’s work is actually more difficult than you think, as is what it takes to prove that it happened. This article on Plagiarism Today discusses the steps it takes to prove that plagiarism actually happened. I’m going to summarize its points below as it pertains to music. [Remember that this is not legal advice, so if you’re really worried about plagiarism you should seek out a attorney well-versed in the subject.]
1. Prove your work is original. If you hear a song that’s similar to one you wrote, the first thing is to do a search to see when the other song first appeared. If it was posted on YouTube or a streaming site, or if you delve even further into it and discover an official release or copyright date that’s before yours, then you don’t have a case.
This obviously gets into sticky legalities that seem to be a dark area even for intellectual property attorneys and musicologists, as witnessed by the Robin Thicke “Blurred Lines” lawsuit brought by the Marvin Gaye estate. In that case it seems like the sound and feel of Gaye’s “Give It Up” were what was copied. That’s one of the reasons why you see so many writers on songs these days. In order to legally cover themselves, an artist/songwriter will attribute everyone in the room when the song is being written, then attribute previous songs even if they are only suggested by the new work.
The thing to remember here is that if a song is similar enough to one that you wrote, the first thing to do is find out when it first appeared.
2. Show the plagiarist had access. In order to have a case you have to prove that the person copying your work somehow was able to hear it or saw the sheet music (if there was any) before you published it. This is a lot easier with music than with written work, since there are so many places where someone could hear a song, and now with online music it’s easier to document than ever.
3. Prove that the work was copied. This is the tough part and why attorneys in these cases get big bucks, since it’s not easy. According to the article, in order to prove the work is copied you have to prove two things:
- That there’s no way the works could have been an independent creation.
- That the work was copied from you (and not some mutual source).
As you can see, proving plagiarism can be an enormous and legally expensive task, which is why you only see cases come up around big hits. That’s the only time the pockets are deep enough to make a plagiarism lawsuit worthwhile.
Given the large volume of music available, if you’re a songwriter that’s worried about someone stealing your work, you’re probably better off making sure that you’re not stealing from someone else first.