What is plagiarism, exactly?

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  • #25962 Reply

    Looking for inspiration, I checked out the best-selling tracks at a popular music library- one I have not submitted music to. Search term = “corporate”

    The first 5 top-selling songs had the same bpm, very similar instrument choices (what is that muted guitar sound they all use for ostinato?), some combination of I IV VI V chord changes, and I think they were all in C major.

    And they were all by different composers.

    Which reminded me of the recent videos going around that show scenes with the original temp tracks and then with the final music – and they’re close enough to identical as to makes no difference.

    Would any of the more experienced music library composers like to comment on this?

    #25963 Reply

    Hi Terlingua,

    There was a time when soundalikes raked in some nice money. I could be wrong, but I am sensing that this has changed….it has for me, at least. ‘Clocks’ was the big one a handful of years ago and a lot of tracks still emulate that tempo/vibe. Writing a soundalike or to a temp track is dangerous territory, but I do believe it can be done well without infringing on anything.

    The client wants THAT SONG, and is hoping you can get pretty close. I once had a client make a spreadsheet of how my track was different from the temp track. Yep. No clue that you can’t just rip the melodies and other content.

    You’d have to ask MichaelL on this one, but I believe it was usually stolen melodic content that was typically fodder for lawsuits. Recent large lawsuits did tell a little bit of a different story, as it seemed that if a groove + sound choices were too close, it could be an issue as well.

    And ‘top selling’ doesn’t always mean that it is great music. It might be ‘top selling’ for any number of reasons. Search engine, title, keywords, etc.


    #25964 Reply

    Well, as a newbie to the music library biz- but not to the music biz- I’m looking for a roadmap. The appeal of mirroring the “best selling” tracks is the hope that by emulating them, my tracks will sell, too.

    If what the world wants is another 120 bpm song in C major with 8th note ostinato and vague melody, I can crank ’em out.

    Received wisdom is that the music library business is a “numbers game.” I’ve read several quotes on this site where composers explain that you can’t really predict what people will buy.

    Which leaves 0 divided by infinity, when you’re looking at a new Logic file and wondering just what to input.

    Oh well… I’ve been working on this for less than 90 days and have over 100 tracks (including edits) in several libraries, in a half-dozen or so styles. I’m sure a pattern will emerge.

    Again, thanks to Art and this forum. I’d hate to imagine what this journey would be like without the information I’ve gathered here.

    #25965 Reply
    Mark Lewis

    If what the world wants is another 120 bpm song in C major with 8th note ostinato and vague melody, I can crank ’em out.

    Oh god, please no!
    If you want to get lost in the flood of other composers doing exactly the same thing then this would be a good plan.
    I’ve had to request some composers to stop uploading these cookie cutter corporate music tracks as it is just to awful to review (for me) and subject our clients to.
    There is however room to be creative within the dreaded I IV VI V and it is nice to hear composers that can still think creatively within certain parameters.
    But please no more freakin’ ukulele and whistled melodies. Drgh!!

    Received wisdom is that the music library business is a “numbers game.”

    Personally I think this is a dangerous piece of “wisdom” that some composers are putting out there. And it should not be accepted out of hand.
    We have composers with 100 tracks in the library that make more than composers with 900 tracks. It is totally a matter of quality.
    And I have seen a few composers go from being high quality to simply mediocre because they believe it is simply a numbers game. They go from uploading a few great tracks a month to uploading 50 tracks but of drones and stock pads and percussion sample sets all at real low quality production value. No thought or effort or creativity in the process whatsoever.
    This is sad.

    Please don’t get caught up in all the things being said here. Write what you know, what feels good to you, what makes you proud to listen to and share with others.
    You are an artist, not an accountant.

    #25968 Reply

    Please don’t get caught up in all the things being said here. Write what you know, what feels good to you, what makes you proud to listen to and share with others.
    You are an artist, not an accountant.

    refreshing to hear..I came to the same conclusion a few years back..

    #25974 Reply

    Plagiarism is trying to pass off another’s work or ideas as your own. In the context of library music, the more pertinent question is “what is infringement?”

    Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer or bright line definition to help you. There are many US Supreme Court cases that deal with the issue and the recent case involving the Estate of Marvin Gaye v Williams and Thicke has further “blurred the lines.”

    To oversimplify, the basic test applied has been one of “substantial similarity.” That doesn’t necessarily require expert testimony, supported by charts and graphs. On a very basic level, if you play a piece of music for someone and there’s a spark of recognition that may be enough. It doesn’t have to be overt. Infringement can be more subliminal, think He’s So Fine and My Sweet Lord.

    There are a number of recognized “fair use” defenses to infringement including criticism, research and scholarship, news reporting, educational use, and parody.

    I won’t address the artistic merits of doing soundalikes or of walking down well-worn stylistic paths other than to say that at best it’s a calculated attempt capitalize on a successful formula and at worst it’s lack of imagination on the composer’s part. If you intentionally produce a track that sounds like Clocks by Coldplay and market it as such, you are on thin ice, unless your composition falls under one of the fair use defenses (which is unlikely).

    If you want to understand more of how fair use analysis works, read Justice Souter’s opinion in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose: https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/92-1292.ZO.html

    Specifically, regarding the ubiquitous ukulele/whistling combination and I IV-VI V chords patterns, there are other defenses. First, you cannot copyright chord changes (think 12-bar blues). Of course, before “Blurred Lines” we thought the same applied to rhythmic patterns as well. Next, it’s hard, if not impossible, to say who originated the simple combination of happy ukulele music and whistling. You could point back to Vaudeville artists in the 1920’s and 30’s, like Rudy Vallee. But, more obviously, you can look at Hawaiian folk music, popularized by soldiers returning from the Pacific after WWII. How, when, and why that sound somehow became identified with corporate music — who knows? It may not matter. The potential defense, in this case, is that such a work is based on public domain works and folk traditions, not specifically any of the other 5 million ukulele/whistling corporate cues (which argues that the style itself is generic).

    Beyond ukuleles, whistles, and Coldplay/Us knockoffs, something new is dominating the corporate music sound, based on a current trend identified by Patrick Metzger as the “Millennial Whoop” — an alternation between the fifth and the third scale tones, usually to some variation of “wa-oh-wa-oh.” There has already been litigation over this. https://thepatterning.com/2016/08/20/the-millennial-whoop-a-glorious-obsession-with-the-melodic-alternation-between-the-fifth-and-the-third/

    @Terilingua, your question goes to the heart of what defines production music and there no simple answer for that either. Given the right situation, almost any composition might function in a production, but the market thrives on familiarity. Accomplishing familiarity without crossing the line into infringement is a challenge, but it can be accomplished creatively if composers are skilled enough and willing and to make the effort.

    #25976 Reply
    Art Munson

    Thanks MichaelL fascinating about the “Millennial Whoop” and a great read at that link you posted, https://thepatterning.com/2016/08/20/the-millennial-whoop-a-glorious-obsession-with-the-melodic-alternation-between-the-fifth-and-the-third/.

    #25979 Reply

    @MichaelL – thanks for the well thought out and stated response. Good stuff. Since anybody can sue anybody and juries are unpredictable, there’s always a risk, right?

    (I hope this is on topic: Jimmy Webb’s book, “Tunesmith,” has a fascinating chapter about the odds of actually writing an original tune- You can’t.)

    And yes, you’re right… I am trying to get a handle on “what is production music?”

    I’m also trying to get a better grip on the business itself. It’s not as intuitive to a newcomer as I suspect it is to those who have been doing it a while.

    For example, “music library” can describe a web page where anybody can upload music and anybody who finds it can download music for a small price.

    It can also describe a boutique, carefully curated library run by serious industry insiders who know exactly what is needed, who is looking for it, and who in their stable can write it.

    I did not know that 90 days ago.

    There’s also the question of “what is good?” Which, in this case, is another way to ask, “what will sell?”

    The soccer mom in Dallas who is looking to license a background track for a video of her kids is probably not gonna grab JunkieXLs stuff. A music supervisor in L.A. looking for an action track is not going to choose ukulele and whistles.

    Apparently, there is a living to be made writing music for soccer moms, corporate videos, ads, and background music in videos and reality shows.

    My plan, based on incomplete and changing data, is to continue writing for the RF libraries I’m already in, and add as many legit RF libraries as I can, hopefully establishing a base income.

    As I “up my game,” by writing constantly, improving my sample library, and hanging out here trying to metabolize years of experience as fast as I can, I’ll start auditioning for libraries that are a little more exclusive- in both meanings of the word.

    I do not own a ukulele.

    #25980 Reply

    @michaell – thanks for the well thought out and stated response. Good stuff.

    Thanks, Terlingua. It’s one of the joys of being a composer and a lawyer. 😀

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