Can there be really a coincidental similarity between two songs? I mean, some cases are pretty much the same!
Let’s start by making it clear that there isn’t any song that’s 100% original. It’s basically impossible; there are chords that will be the same in one or many existent songs. But there’s a huge difference between that and having basically the same tunes. There’s a lovely anecdote of Paul McCartney when he composed his emblematic “Yesterday.” One day he woke up with the full song in his head and thought it was brilliant. But as great as it sounded, he thought he couldn’t just have composed the tune in his sleep. It must have belonged to someone else, and he just happened to remember it. So, he went immediately to his piano and recorded it. Then he spent about a month meeting people from the industry to show it to them and ask them if they had actually listened to something like this, and when they told them this was absolutely fresh, he decided to compose the full song. Now, this doesn’t happen that often. I mean, the part where you actually compose a new song in your sleep. More often it’s just as Paul thought at the beginning. It’s probably something you heard and didn’t pay that much attention to, and someday it comes to you and you think you’ve come with an amazing innovative song, when it isn’t really the case.
Throughout the history of music, we’ve seen so many cases of songs that are basically a rip off a previous one. In some cases, composers accept that they were inspired by them (although they didn’t credit the artists) or they remain so sure that their song came to them originally with no intentions of plagiarizing others. Probably the most sounded case, basically because it just happened a couple of weeks ago, is that of Lana del Rey vs. Radiohead. As soon as her single “Get Free” was released, people immediately saw a huge similarity with Radiohead’s classic “Creep,” but the creepy part about this wasn’t the clear rip off, but the fact that she went into social media to say that the band had filed a lawsuit for a hundred percent of the publishing and that she would take this to court. The band immediately released a statement saying that they didn’t file anything, which probably has to do with the first case of similarities we’re about to see.
Radiohead Vs. The Hollies
They didn’t file a lawsuit because their song has a problematic origin as well. When they released their debut single in the early nineties, The Hollies filed a lawsuit claiming that they had plagiarized the melody and rhythm of their 1972 song called “The Air that I Breathe.” They actually lost the case and had to give credit to The Hollies. Here’s the song so you can judge, but in my opinion, the resemblance is quite obvious.
Ed Sheeran Vs. TLC
Apparently, the rule now is to take an old song, change it a bit, and then make a million dollar hit. Well, our favorite British composer isn’t free from these allegations, since as soon as his hit song “Shape of You” was released, it was noted that it sounded quite similar to the nineties' R&B hit “No Scrubs” by TLC. In a smart move, Sheeran stated that he was indeed inspired by the song, and fast as a gazelle he credited them in the song. Now, this one isn’t as evident as the previous one, so probably it was the safest thing to do to avoid a legal issue.
The Strokes Vs. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
I know this one’s going to hurt a bit, but after playing both songs repeatedly, I see what all the fuss was all about. The intros sound quite alike. So, when “Last Nite” came in 2001, classic rock lovers thought the song sounded quite familiar to them. It turns out that it started pretty much in the same way as Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ “American Girl” from 1976. But don’t worry, in an interview the band admitted they had gotten inspiration from Petty’s song, and he actually thought it was cool, so no harm was done.
Sam Smith Vs. Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne
When Sam Smith released his song “Stay With Me” that gave him three Grammy nominations (and made him win two), the likeness with another Tom Petty's song (this time co-written with Jeff Lynne) was evident. “I Won’t Back Down" was released in 1989, and the song sounds pretty much the same, although with another tempo and beat. Sam Smith’s team released a statement saying that he had never listened to Petty/Lynne’s song, but that he was aware that the resemblance was quite huge. After months of dispute (amicable dispute according to the press), they agreed to credit them in the song.
George Harrison Vs. The Chiffon’s
As a Beatle fan and team George member, I can’t say this one didn’t hurt when I saw the scandal. So, when the Beatles broke up, George was the first one to release a solo album; actually, it was a triple album called All Things Must Pass (1970). One of the hits from the album was his song “My Sweet Lord,” which became an anthem for young people at the time. Sadly, quite soon he received a lawsuit from the legal representatives of The Chiffon’s claiming that he had totally plagiarized their 1963 song “He’s So Fine.” He claimed that he had not stolen the song and that probably he had copied it unconsciously, a claim the jury considered understandable, so he only had to pay a percentage of the profits of the song. However, he wasn’t content with having such a dark mark in his record, and in 1976 he released “This Song,” with lyrics that made fun of the incident with sentences like, “this song has nothing tricky about it. This song ain't black or white and as far as I know don't infringe on anyone's copyright, so…”
I don’t know if it’s just me, but it would seem that plagiarizing a song isn’t as badly seen as ripping off anything else. In all these cases there haven’t been serious punishments, and these artists are still making tons of money from their songs, well those who are still alive, of course. Anyway, even if they sound quite similar, the musicians actually add something special from them in their songs, and that’s probably why they are a huge success.
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