Musical Theft VS “Inspired By”

Musical TheftIf it’s been said once it’s been said plenty enough times to beat a horse well beyond mortality. “There isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before”.

A bold statement, but often difficult to disprove because at best ideas are usually very much so different perspectives of various things that already are around. Of course it goes without saying that there are lines drawn between what is permitted and what isn’t or else we’d see a lot more lawsuits and a lot fewer musicians.

There’s a lot of weight that comes with the territory when you start throwing the word “steal” around in passing conversation. Sometimes, if the right person is around they can actually take something and whip it into something new, or at least camouflage the source material, then other times the “composer” just insults our intelligence and we wind up with something like the legendary Queen vs. Vanilla Ice dispute. And then on top of things like that there are those that have established a career that could set a record for raised eyebrows (I’m looking at you, Mr. Lloyd Webber).

But ultimately all music has to start somewhere, right? Everyone is inspired by someone else’s works. If none of us ever listened to anything that was written by anyone else then we’d be a legion of boring composers. But at what point does inspiration cross into that place of sacrilege known as plagiarism? How far can one venture into that land of fire and brimstone our parents have warned us to stay away from and still be in the clear? And if you really want to have sympathy for the devil is it ever a good idea to journey into this nether world of music?

What Will Land Me A Lawsuit?

I know that’s a rhetorical question, but if you have to ask then there lies a greater probability that you’ll end up in one. It’s all a probability thing really. The more closely something resembles the source material the greater the chance you’ll get busted. Going back to Vanilla Ice and Queen in a case like that it didn’t even sound like they tried to bullshit the bullshitters. No rearrangements or anything. If it sounds like you’ve copied and pasted something into your song then it’s a recipe for disaster.

Melody and lyrics are easily the biggest concerns out there. Chord progressions are like drum patterns in that they get recycled so often that you’ll rarely come across anyone that’s willing to kick up a fuss about them, but when it comes to the melody and lyrics it’s a take no prisoners situation.

So What Won’t Get Me Into A Lawsuit?

When it comes to taking ideas there are some things that are pretty much always ok to do. Things like drum patterns and chord progressions get recycled so often that it’s a rarity to come across anyone willing to kick up much of a fuss about it, that is to say if they can even pinpoint where you got the idea from.

Song structure is another one of those things. People just plain don’t care where you got the idea on how to order the various parts of your song. There are so many variables that go into a song that you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery than guessing where a given song structure came from.

Another safe bet is dealing with anything that’s public domain. Classical music is ripe for the picking, though the honor system would have you at least credit the source material lest you wish to look like a jackass when people start calling you out on it. But that’s a department that has been exploited countless times by countless musicians because it’s free to use and who is to say that there isn’t still room to do new things with old music?

That’s the rule of thumb. If it’s public domain or it’s been recycled countless times you’ve got the green light.

How To Use These For The Good Of Mankind

As a budding composer these things are not necessarily in the look, but don’t touch category. If you’re applying any of the recyclable ideas then you’re clear through and through. However there are still ways to apply those

On top of that swiping song structures is an excellent exercise for budding composers. If there is anything that can help someone understand how to make a song sound more like a song and less like a compilation of ideas crammed together it’s this.

When it comes to melodies if you can take something and tinker with it to where it’s beyond recognition then you’re probably going to be ok. Tinkering with the writings of another composer is an excellent way to get the gears turning in your head on how to do something while also showing you how someone else acquired the same feeling.

So how can you make sure that you’ll never get busted for doing any of this stuff?

Publishing

It’s when publishing comes into the fray that red flags start to go up. This is kind of the short and stupid of it, but if you never put the music out there you’ll never find yourself in a lawsuit. If you’re some Joe Blow hanging out in your mother’s basement tinkering with songs for kicks and giggles and showing them off to your friends that’s a whole separate concern.

If you’re composing something with the intention of having it published then I’m not going to readily endorse using other peoples’ music as the intentional base for your works, but if you’re going to – make sure it’s unrecognizable. Get second opinions from others if you’re unsure. Hell, even if you are sure get a second opinion. Third even.

The more you push music out into the industry the more you open it up for others’ perspectives and being branded with the plagiarism demerit can tarnish a career. These are all good as exercises and music history is littered with people using these things as just that, but it’s also littered with people that have used these as career choices. Don’t be one of those guys.

Kyle Smitchens (448 Articles)

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.