I read today that popular band Guns N’ Roses is being sued for a million bucks by a fellow who makes ambient electronica named Ulrich Schnauss. If I understand correctly, the claim is about unauthorized sampling. I suppose that’s a little bit different than using the same melody, but then sampling is kind of like collage for musicians – snip a piece here, glue a piece there. The business of lawsuits over plagiarism is pretty common. After all, there is a lot of dough involved in the popular music business.
Many people of my generation will remember the fuss when George Harrison was successfully sued for turning He’s so Fine by the Chiffons into My Sweet Lord. There are plenty of examples, many of which were settled out of court.
There was a time when reusing melodies wasn’t plagiarism. I use a short form for that: folk music. The idea with folk music is that we own the song together as a community and we can use it and reuse it and change it about all we like. Let’s look at an example. Wabash Cannonball vs Grand Coulee Dam. Anyone who listens to the two songs would agree they share a melody, but it doesn’t really matter. They just share a melody, that’s all. And when Woody sings: In the misty crystal glitter of that wild and windy spray, men have fought the pounding waters and met a watery grave, nobody is thinking of that hobo train, the Wabash Cannonball, taking men of the traveling nation to a better place.
Melodies are borrowed and reused and we shouldn’t be surprised. Consider the structure of western music based around a 7 note diatonic scale – and most popular music using 2,3, maybe 4 chords – how many possibilities are there?
We see songs that change as they cross genres. They adapt.
So, can you own a song? What makes it yours? What does writing a song really mean? Tough questions. Today we have sampling, and in a way that highlights the issue, because with sampling you can take a chunk of a recording, not just a melody or a lyric or a song family and move it lock, stock and barrel to a different context. In a way context changes everything, even though you can identify the original recording in some samples.