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MAY 2, 2010 10:39AM

Musical Plagiarism (?)

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Talk about a day late and a dollar short.

I totally missed the boat on the whole Joni Mitchell/Bob Dylan kerfuffle.

To be honest, I didn’t really have anything interesting to say about it last weekend (although I enjoyed reading other’s opinions on the intertubes).

I mean, dude, of course Dylan has been lifting lines and melodies since the beginning of his career. He’s inserted lines from various movies and books, from Ovid, and even from an obscure 1990s Japanese novel. Standard blues and folk phrases and melodies can be heard on many of his albums. Oh, Dylan is a shameless thief no doubt. But really, this is nothing shocking. Hell he even called one of albums “Love and Theft.” In quotation marks.

I honestly don't understand Mitchell’s beef, but my guess is that it has nothing to do with Dyaln’s musical and literary larceny.


The bru-ha-ha did get me thinking broadly about the nature of plagiarism in regard to popular music. Here’s a tradition that once thrived on appropriation, borrowing, thieving, and recontextualizing.

Once upon a time, folk and blues artists traded and collected riffs, melodies, and phrases like baseball cards—gonna dust my broom—down at the crossroads—Casey Jones ridin’ the rails—12 bar blues—let that boy boogie-woogie. This was called folk music after all. Music that belonged to the people.

But now? Whose songs are these anyway? The artists? The people (folk)? The record companies? Multi-national conglomerates?

When recorded folk and blues music became big business during the middle of the 20th century, artists and recording companies were obviously looking to cash in—there was a change in “accepted practices” and suddenly blues and folk music copyrights were tightened--"You can't have that riff man, it's my riff, it's CBS's riff, it's private property man!"  It wasn’t music of the folk any longer—the music became a commodity and songs became property. Folk music meets the free market.

Of course, this new dynamic doesn’t reflect people’s real relationship to music. People and artists would continue to react to, to be influenced by, and to build upon the music they were hearing.

So, what do we mean by musical plagiarism?

I mean, was Woody Guthrie plagiarizing the Carter Family when he appropriated the melody from “This World’s on Fire” (also their “You Are My Sunshine”) for “This Land is Your Land”?

This is certainly muddy water, and I don’t have any answers.

However, it might be interesting to take a look at a couple of popular instances of “musical plagiarism.” Some are obvious hack-jobs and rip-offs, while others…man, I’m really not sure.

What do you think?


  • All Day and All of the Night—The Kinks (1964)—Ray Davies
  • Hello, I Love You—The Doors (written 1965, recorded 1968)—Jim Morrison

Ray Davies unsuccessfully sued The Doors for this one.  Although “Hello, I Love You” was released on The Doors’ 1968 album Waiting For The Sun, it was originally written by Morrison in 1965—a year after “All Day and All of the Night” was popular. Interestingly, in Electra’s initial press release for The Doors upon their 1965 signing Jim Morrison listed The Kinks as one of his favorite bands.  Apparently Ray Davies is still pissed.

In an unrelated note the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles is also apparently still pissed over the The Doors’ “Oedipal Section” in “The End.” Says Sophocles: “Morrison gives new meaning to the term ‘motherfucker.’”


  • He's So Fine—The Chiffons (1962)—Roland Mack
  • My Sweet Lord—George Harrison (1970)—George Harrison

This famous plagiarism lawsuit ruled against the former Beatle in favor of Bright Tunes, the company that owned “He’s So Fine.” The judge called it a case of “subconscious plagiarism.” Harrison ultimately bought the Bright Tunes Company. Meanwhile the Vishnu is just happy to have the mantra Hare Krishna associated with a cool song rather than with “those weirdoes at the airport.”



A musician ripping off Huey Lewis is like a director ripping off Uwe Boll. Very pathetic.  But Huey Lewis received a nice (undisclosed) settlement from Ray Parker Jr.—until he blabbed about it to VH1, and Ray Parker Jr. countersued.Whole lot of suing for two completely stupid songs.

Too bad both songs are ultimately indebted to  M’s “Pop Muzik” released in 1979.





  • Run Through the Jungle—Creedence Clearwater Reival (1969)—John Fogerty
  • The Old Man Down the Road—John Fogerty (1985)—John Fogerty
Not to be confused with Geffen’s lawsuit against Neil Young for “not sounding enough like Neil Young,” this lawsuit saw Fantasy records suing John Fogerty for sounding too much like himself! He was sued for plagiarizing himself!
Fogerty, of course, won the case. 

This suit resulted in the largest settlement ever for a musical copyright infringement—hack singer Michael Bolton was required to pay over $5 million dollars to the Isleys. Frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if the ruling had something to do with the fact that Bolton's music sucks donkey balls coupled with his ruining forever Percey Sledge's  “When a Man Loves a Woman” and Otis Redding's “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”

I like to think the judge was simply offended by Bolton's existence. I like to think of the ruling as reparations for crimes against rock.  Of course, I also like to think that there is a special place in hell for Michael Bolton and every single one of his lame-ass fans. 




Vanilla Ice sampled the classic Queen/David Bowie bass line and tried to pass it off as his. He ultimately paid Queen and Bowie an undisclosed sum of money. The outrage from this song probably has more to do with the fact that Vanilla Ice is a no-talent ass-clown than for his act of musical sampling.


And speaking of sampling…

As we wade deeper into the 21st century, thanks to technology, the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way toward a time when it's the music that's important--not the artist or the company. For over twenty years, DJs have been sampling riffs and grooves from recordings to form new music. Is sampling musical plagiarism?

With computer software making it easier for anyone to become a creative DJ and lift pieces of copyrighted music, coupled with the continuing collapse of the corporate music industry, we seem to be heading back to an era when musical piracy was valued and encouraged. In both the academic and business world there has been vigorous debate about whether this is all right or wrong—the ethics of free information and access to music. Certainly this is a worthy debate.

But  we should  also frame this discusstion within the nature of artistic context.  I ask again, whose music is this anyway? Is there really a difference between what Woody Guthrie did with the Cater Family song and what Jim Morrison did with the Kinks song? Or what DJs and hip-hop artists do with that sample from the old record?

Is an act like Girl Talk just a clever thief, or is he contributing something of value? Where is music going in an age when more and more people can manipulate and recontexualize the music on their hard drives? Are we criminals or artists? Is there even a difference anymore?

Girl Talk's "Play Your Part (pt. 1)From Girl Talk's album "Feed the Animals" 2008--Illegal Art

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Yay! Me first. These are great tunes. Thanks for giving me the soundtrack for cleaning... Later today... :-)
I loved the post and the links to compare the music. One person's muse is another person's victim I guess.
Intellectual property issues are fascinating stuff.
Was it Willie Nelson? I'd check, but I have a rule about working on Sunday mornings. Was accused and responded, "Hey, there's only eight notes." Given the infinite number of monkeys theory, eventually someone's gonna make a song exactly like someone else.

The Fogerty case represents one of the worts cases of petty contract dispute-dom in history. A studio owned all his stuff and he refused to play any of it because he couldn't stand the thought of them making another nickle off him. So when he said in an interview about his new band and new music that he liked the song because it had a "Run Through the Jungle" feel to it, they pounced.

Fogerty at some point said, screw it, and began performing his hits again. Thank goodness. He is still one of the most powerful performers in Rock history.

As to the samplers, I have a rule: If you can't pick up a guitar and sing, then don't. Please.
Very informative post.
The only one I knew about was the Vanilla Ice case.
And then, there's the Verve and Bittersweet Symphony.
As an artist I imagine that we are always working with recurrent themes. Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism drawn can be very tricky indeed.
I prefer the many no-lawsuit-required methods hip hop artists have used in instances of alleged beat theft.
Thanks PattyJane, although not all of these are great tunes--There's Michael Bolton here---be afraid!

Britton and gigabiting--this is an increasingly interesting realm. and not just in music. Although I think it has an impact of other issues concerning intellectual property.

jimmymac--the Fogerty case is fascinating, and kind of brings into focus the question: whose music is this anyway?
As for samplers, I've got to disagree- some interesting musical possibilities there. I personally enjoy musicians who play there own instruments, but it would be a mistake to dismiss sampling--I think it's a valid art form. A lot of the same charges against sampling were once leveled against electrified music. Regardless, it is an interesting debate.
This is one of those posts I wish I'd written. I think about this sort of thing all the time in the shower. For my money, the Kinks did it better.
Vanessa--Ah! I forgot the Verve/Rolling Stones case. Yes!

1_I_M--could you expand on no-lawsuit required? Do you mean Fair Use?
Kathy--Thanks--I've been meaning to write a piece on this for a while. And I agree, the Kinks song is better. Strangely enough "Hello, I Love You" was The Doors only #1 song.

Bonnie--thank you. But let's play nice...please.
"In an unrelated note the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles is also apparently still pissed over the The Doors’ “Oedipal Section” in “The End.” Says Sophocles: “Morrison gives new meaning to the term ‘motherfucker."
Loved this post MJ.
I heard Nick Lowe interviewed years ago and he said that of course they're all ripping each other off. Every note has been played, every musician is influenced by other musicians. The Rolling Stones ripped off an old blues artist on just about every one of their albums. Big money and fragile egos. As always a beautifully written piece.
trilogy--yeah, apparently Freud is also pissed at Morrison.

coogan'sbluff--you're right, and Nick Lowe is right--blues and folk rely on re-appropriation and recontexualizing ideas. The Stones and Dylan are masters of this---that's why they're so great.
Good piece and great music. Bolton -- he makes me skin crawl and my eyes water and not in a good way. He couldn't hold a candle to the least-talented Isley brother. Artists are influenced by all kinds of other artists. T'was ever thus. The trick is to turn influences into something original, and own up to any "borrowing." Girl Talk is stealing so outrageously that it becomes satire, and that is still allowed I think.
Thanks for putting this together. I've often wondered about some of the obvious similarities - especially with modern tunes, and I share the same general question as you. To me, it would be worse and more blatantly theft if a work of art were appropriated by someone with a name from some unknown artist, without payment or credit of any kind. Otherwise it would seem to be a battle between the companies or estate managers who own the rights to whatever's at issue.

I think most of us who publish on OS have considered the possibility at one time or another that something we post could be stolen. I feel we have more protection posting in a highly visible community, like this, than in an obscure or less known blog.
At points in the past I've come up with copycat songs for The Cowsills' "Indian Lake," Shocking Blue's "Venus," Dire Straights' "Sultans of Swing" and others. Do you think I can think what those copycat songs are tonight to add to this discussion? I plead senior moment. I should always write this stuff down when it comes to me, which is usually when I'm listening to XM oldies on the radio.
Good collection there MJ. I hate to see lawsuits come out of these but I also think that whoever borrowed/copied/stole/plagiarized and made money from it ought to share the wealth. There are a couple of other examples.

Rod Stewart's Do Ya Think I'm Sexy lifts most of its music from Jorge Ben's Taj Mahal. I believe that Stewart eventually acknowledged this as he was on a long vacation in Brazil in the late 60s when Taj Mahal was a hit. But Stewart said something like he was so drunk all the time that he scarce remembers what he may have heard.

I remember a review of Freddie Cannon playing in some small club in the mid 70s. He would intersperse Crocodile Rock with his own hit Palisade Park. Don't think he ever sued Elton about it though.

And shouldn't Shakespeare have paid some royalties to Plutarch's estate?
Thank you for the educating essay.
Dare I call it a tour de farce.
Firestorm--yeah, who buys Michael Bolton albums? Who are his fans? Oh, never mind, I don't want to meet those people anyway---

Bonnie--there are a few songs with that title. Shaggy, the Jonas Brothers---here's "Keepin it Real" from Mason Jennings:

emma--that's a good way to describe Girl Talk. He's also a lot of fun in concert.

Matt--this really is a tricky issue--and it does often become a battle between big companies--often the artist is of little importance in regard to copyright.

Kathy--I'd like to hear your copycat tunes. And that makes me think of another issue--that of youtube. Lots of regular folks performing well known songs as well as "copycat" type songs. I don't think there will be any rational way for companies to enforce copyright. Stuff just wants to be free on the interwebs.

Abrawang--good point. and I think there is an expectation that an artist who borrows and appropriates will give credit. Besides the legal and monetary issues, credit is important to acknowledging the roots and interconnectedness of music. That's what I really love about popular music--the six degrees of separation between just about any popular musical genre.
mr. fawkes--thanks

I just realized I had forgotten to add links to the songs I didn't post videos for. LINKS ADDED!
We can celebrate that the original unattributed African author of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight!", ("Mbube") Solomon Linda won a judgement earlier this year. Now, let's see them collect on it!
They still haven't paid Bo Diddley!
For my own selfish reasons I am heartened to learn that John Fogarty was triumphant after being sued for plagiarizing himself. This has been a person concern of mine for reasons which I cannot elaborate on obviously.

Funny that Harrison bought the company!

Ice T does suck, and I agree with you about why he lost the case, obviously.

It's easy for the really rich and successful artists (like Willie Nelson) to make light of the issue, but often the songwriters/composers who are getting used are not in a high tax bracket.

Great post Mjwycha.
Fred Hallerman--I thought about Wemoweh when I was writing this. Pete Seegar brought that tune back with him from a trip to Africa.

ablonde--Yeah, if they'd have found in favor of Fantasy records againast Fogerty in the self-plagiarism case, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley would have been in trouble!
How I love the shameless thief. Keeping the tradition strong.
Have you seen this? Pachabel's Canon in D. Very funny.
Scarlett--shameless thieves indeed. Thanks for the link, and thanks for commenting.
Very good points, MJ - the line is constantly blurred.

Though I don't get The Kinks/The Doors one - they don't seem similar enough to me. She's so Fine and My Sweet Lord - get that one.

But it kind of ultimately silly to claim a riff as your own. Its music - it's open territory. To some extent. Except when it comes to Under Pressure and Vanilla Ice - that's just obvious...see? Blurry line.

Besides all the rock bands could be sued by early blues singers, etc. then. Zeppelin would be in the poor house.
You're right Beth--it's mud.
As I said, those old blues musicians traded riffs and phrases like baseball cards--part of the folk tradition.
Now the outrage over Vanilla Ice's sample had more to do with his insistence that his bassline was original--not borrowed from Queen and Bowie. No respect, no acknowledgment.

And that's part of it. I think there's an unwritten rule of respect that comes into play in regard to musicians borrowing and appropriating. The tradition is to always point to the past, to acknowledge those who came before, to locate oneself along the chain.
And Mitchell knows this, so I didn't understand her outburst about Dylan. I think it had something to do personally between the two of them.
"This is certainly muddy water" - was this a pun and a sly reference to Dylan's rip of Muddy Water's "Rollin and Tumblin'" on Modern Times?

And speaking of Muddy Waters, you forgot Zep's "Whole Lotta Love" - taken from Muddy Waters' "You need love" (written by Willie Dixon). They settled out of court with Dixon in 1984.
I recall there was a snit between Warren Zevon and Lynryd Skynyrd (took me something like 3 minutes to type that) over the similarities between "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Werewolves of London". Of course that tactful young man Kid Rock had to write a song ("All summer long") that blended the two.
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