The Fine Line Between Influence and Theft

Following the news that Men at Work have lost the case to appeal against Larrikin Music’s lawsuit, I thought it was about time we looked into the law behind music copyright.

Copyright law is complex. No bones about it. To gain a thorough knowledge of copyright law requires intense study of case histories, a mind well practised in legal study, and lack of a soul. I lack all but one of those attributes, but I do also have the ability to soullessly regurgitate the words of others as though it were my own (which seems appropriate for this subject).

What it was that got Men at Work in hot water was the flute riff of ‘Down Under’. Australian label Larrikin Music sued the band in 2009, they claimed that the riff was stolen from Marion Sinclair’s ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’. They said that the band had clearly used Sinclair’s music without giving her any credit. The Australian court ruled in the label’s favour and Men at Work are having to pay 5% of the royalties they’ve earned from the song since 2002. The ins and outs of the judge’s ruling isn’t that important, it’s that the band are being punished because they didn’t credit Sinclair.

See there’s the right way and the wrong way to steal, and I have an example of each to illustrate this. I warn you though, I’m going to be venturing into territory that we normally steer well clear of here at The Phonograph. I’m going to be taking you into the mainstream.

Our story of above board theft begins in Germany 1973 with the track ‘Hallo Bimmelbahn’ by Nighttrain. If you give it a listen you’ll probably recognise where this is going to end up. Six years later Boney M., another German band, released ‘Gotta Go Home’. The song borrowed largely from Nighttrain’s track, the central riff was taken wholesale, and the whole thing was made more disco. This was all good and above board because Nighttrain’s members were credited as co-writers of the song. Skip forward thirty years and DJ duo Duck Sauce release their track ‘Barbara Streisand’. Sampling the intro of ‘Gotta Go Home’, the track rips and repeats the German disco track. But, again, this is all good because cited as writers are not only Boney M.’s members but also Nighttrain’s.

So long as you seek out written permission from the original composer, or licence the music from the label then it’s legal. Bizarrely, when it comes to sampling music, the issue isn’t that you are copying the music, but that you are copying the recording. It seems that if you were to cover the sampled section then everything would be fine and dandy.

Of course, we rarely here about bands doing it the proper way.

I’m sure you are all avid listeners of everything produced by that Jennifer Lopez lady, but in particular the delightfully named ‘On the Floor’. Don’t worry, you only have to sit through the first thirty seconds (and two blatant product placements) to hear the relevant part of the song. Notice that little exotic riff? Well now listen to this. Eerily similar eh? Well a number of critics have thought so too. But that’s only the start of it.

Right about the time Men at Work were being sued by Larrikin Music, Edward Maya released ‘Stereo Love’. The “rocking” club “anthem” made its way around the clubs, becoming particularly popular in Eastern Europe. The song’s popularity hung around the exotic accordian riff, unlike Duck Sauce and Boney M., Maya had chalked the riff up to that most prolific of artists ‘Anonymous’. The song was barely been out a month beforethe lawsuit came throug the post. Azerbaijani musician Eldar Mansurov claimed that the song sampled his own track ‘Bayitilar’. Personally, I don’t hear it. But it was enough for the Romanian Office for Copyright. Understandably annoyed, Mansurov demanded he gain co-authorship of the song, a concession Maya duly made.

Though with so many people in the blogosphere ready to take up arms at the idea of inspired music, it’s no wonder artists are hiding their sources. I don’t want to recommend reading Youtube comments, but if you were to read through them on any of the videos I’ve linked to in this post you’ll find bile spewing viewers shouting “stolen” at the first sign of similarity. I’m sure in the not too distant future we’ll take a closer look at the idea of originality in music. However, until then know that  it’s all a matter of correctly citing your sources (and paying the labels) to remain out of the clutches of the courts.

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3 thoughts on “The Fine Line Between Influence and Theft

  1. Pingback: Legacy: Music’s Dead Hand |

  2. An interesting question and topic; and hard to pin down the answer. After all, everyone is influenced by someone or something, getting down to the nuts and bolts is more difficult. Did Keith Emerson ever properly credit Billy Ritchie (of 1-2-3/Clouds) for the idea of lead organist instead of lead guitar? Did Yes ask the same band’s permission before ripping off the twelve-minute version of “America”? I don’t recall Jimmy Page crediting the Creation’s guitarist for the idea of the bowstring solos, etc etc.

    Another crucial fact here is:- when citing so-called influences, artists are often doubly careful to give obscure artists or artists from another genre rather than acknowledging contemporaries – perhaps that’s a bit too close for comfort.

    Either way, it’s still wrong. Nothing amiss with developing existing ideas, but taking full credit without acknowledgement is indeed a form of spiritual (and sometimes monitary) theft.

  3. Hagar the Womb also used the main beat from “Hallo Bimmelbahn” in their song ‘Dressed to Kill”, a British Punk-Rock band. “Hallo Bimmelbahn” is one of the most underrated prolific songs of the 20th century.

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