Copyright symbolA couple of weeks ago, Avril Lavigne found herself facing allegations that she’d plagiarized a 30 year old song. (Here’s some quick background.) It’s old news now, but worth revisiting because some aspects of the case could be important for amateur producers and home recordists.

Lavigne and her co-writer didn’t rip off The Rubinoos. Not even close. Yet most of what passes for discourse on the subject takes the form of sarcastic, kneejerk reactions like this one:

Those songs are basically the same. Hilarious! Avril seriously has the songwriting skills of a 1970s folk artist. She’s Woody Gurthrie reincarnated!

As a writer, it bothers me that anyone thinks the case has merit. But as an amateur producer and songwriter, it particularly troubles me that my peers think there may be something to it. To explain why, I’ll start with the reasons Lavigne is in the clear.

Historical Precedent

Look at the standard of proof used in one of the most famous cases, Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd., more commonly known as George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord vs. The Chiffons He’s So Fine:

The Court noted that HSF incorporated two basic musical phrases, which were called “motif A” and “motif B”. Motif A consisted of four repetitions of the notes “G-E-D” or “sol-mi- re”; B was “G-A-C-A-C” or “sol-la-do-la-do”, and in the second use of motif B, a grace note was inserted after the second A, making the phrase “sol-la-do-la-re-do”. The experts for each party agreed that this was a highly unusual pattern.

Harrison’s composition used the same motif A four times, which was then followed by motif B, but only three times, not four. Instead of a fourth repetition of motif B, there was a transitional phrase of the same approximate length. The original composition as performed by Billy Preston also contained the grace note after the second repetition of the line in motif B, but Harrison’s version did not have this grace note.

Listen to both and hear for yourself how similar two melodies must sound for a judge to side with the plaintiff. Now, check out this video which attempts to make the same case against Lavigne:

The video’s title on Youtube is “Avril Lavigne Steals From The Rubinoos,” so the author’s intentions are clear. But if anything, this back-and-forth contrast of each song makes the opposite point! Girlfriend… and Boyfriend… share 4 words and one note. That’s it. And bloggergirl has a comprehensive collection of songs that use the same “hey hey, you you” phrase. There are many!

So by any rational assessment, there’s no case here, and I suspect (read: hope) the first judge who hears arguments will toss the whole affair back to the street where it belongs.

OK, but who cares?

As the joke goes, both songs actually suck, so why do I even care?

I care for two reasons, one important to amateur producers, and one important to all songwriters.

1. Qualified producers know the allegations are baseless.
The best pop songs sound just similar enough to feel familiar, and just different enough to be novel. Lavigne’s song succeeds as a pop song for exactly this reason. Along with the chorus, I hear at least half a dozen standard pop arrangement techniques in Girlfriend …, from the lockstep kick drum and bass guitar, to the hand clap back-beat.

In fact, many pop arrangement elements are so overused as to be cliche. Think of the chord progression in Stand By Me. And the drum beat in Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life (or, if you prefer, Jet’s Are You Gonna Be My Girl. Or is that The Decemberists Sporting Life?) And how about these lyrics: “I can’t live without you,” “I’d die for you,” and “give me one more chance?”

Pop music is often nothing more than creatively repackaged cliches. And it sells because people feel comfortable around the familiar.

Now perhaps you despise pop music. But every genre, popular or not, has its own cliches, which successful music production depends on exploiting. As I said above, Lavigne’s song and the Rubinoos’ song share nothing more than one of these cliches. So if you think that makes Avril a thief, in short if you believe she ripped off the Rubinoos, you might not be cut out for music production.

2. Copyright issues affect ALL songwriters.
Have you ever used someone else’s melody without their permission? I know I have. I didn’t copy the melody wholesale like Harrison with He’s So Fine. But I noticed after my song was finished that a particularly catchy section was similar to an Arcade Fire song.

When I realized this, I didn’t change the melody. I certainly didn’t call anyone to ask if it was OK. In fact, I didn’t even feel guilty about it. Because I know that all art is derivative. It’s art’s very nature that as musicians, writers, and painters, we play with, and hope to improve upon, what came before. Copyright law in most of the world allows for this. The standard a plaintiff must meet to win an infringement case is strict enough to ensure that artists aren’t punished with capricious lawsuits simply for practicing their craft.

But whether you’re a mixer, producer, or songwriter, these lawsuits have the potential to hurt us all. When the music-consuming public watch videos like the one above, many will conclude that Lavigne really is a thief. This fosters an image of songwriters as plagiarists, and worse, it cheapens our art.

And consider this: If a case as tenuous as Rubinoos v. Lavigne is allowed to proceed, does that mean we’d need to start policing ourselves as songwriters? Ponder how your writing would suffer if you had to …

For that reason, I feel it’s important that we keep informed opinions of the issues. I’ll close with some of my favorite resources for doing just that: Copyfight, and The Recording Industry vs. The People are regularly updated clearinghouses of copyright-related stories, and both pay particular attention to the music industry. And for a Canadian perspective, DCC and Michael Geist’s blog are must-reads.

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