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With Katy Perry and Led Zeppelins recent judgments reversing previous rulings, musicians dont know which way to tread

Have you written a song? A song so memorable that everyone who hears it starts humming it? A song so good it feels as though it has been around forever and you simply plucked it from the ether? Then a word of advice: get an expert to listen to it. Because somewhere, someone is going to be sure your song was copied from theirs.

An old music industry adage holds that where theres a hit, theres a writ. It was true in 1963, when the Beach Boys released Surfin USA, and Chuck Berry duly noted that the song was simply his own 1958 hit Sweet Little Sixteen with new lyrics (Berrys publisher, Arc Music, was granted the publishing rights, and from 1966 Berry was listed alongside Brian Wilson as a writer of the song). And its especially true now after several recent cases.

March alone saw two important judgments about music theft in appeals courts in California. First the ninth circuit court of appeals ruled that Led Zeppelins Stairway to Heaven did not crib from Taurus by Spirit. Then a federal court overturned last years jury verdict that Katy Perrys Dark Horse had stolen from the song Joyful Noise by the Christian rapper Flame.

Katy Perry performing Dark Horse in Los Angeles in 2014. A federal court in March overturned a 2019 verdict that the song had stolen from Flames Joyful Noise. Photograph: Youtube

Whats important, though, is not whether anyone was plagiarised, but whether a copyright was infringed. Plagiarism and copyright infringement are related but they are distinctly different, says Peter Oxendale, who has been a professional forensic musicologist someone who offers expert analysis of compositions for legal purposes for more than 40 years.

Copyright, for example, does not protect ideas but rather the fixed detailed expression of those ideas. Copyright infringement is a legal matter known as a tort, he says. Plagiarism, on the other hand, is an ethical matter and occurs when someone uses the ideas or works of someone else in their own work without giving the appropriate credit to the original source. The cases that come to court are not about plagiarism; theyre about infringement of copyright.

Members of Led Zeppelin pictured in 1970. A US appeals court has found the bands Stairway to Heaven did not crib from Taurus by Spirit. Photograph: AP

The Zeppelin and Perry cases have been hailed as important because they appear to offer songwriters the latitude they seemed to have been denied by a crucial earlier trial. In December 2018 the long-running and highly controversial case involving the song Blurred Lines came to a close, when Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, two of the songs writers, were ordered to pay just short of $5m to the estate of Marvin Gaye, for Blurred Lines similarity to Gayes 1977 song Got To Give It Up.

Blurred Lines certainly stirred up the music community, says Joe Bennett, a forensic musicologist based at Berklee College of Music, in Boston. The reason it had so many musicians concerned is that the two songs are demonstrably different in their melodies, lyrics, and underlying chords. It hasnt set a legal precedent exactly, because every plagiarism case is judged on its individual merits, and every comparison is different, but it certainly has shifted the culture among songwriters, and made many worried about unintentional similarity leading to unfair accusations of copyright infringement.

What the Blurred Lines case did was to allow something previously unheard of: the notion that the feel of a record could be copyrighted. Given that the musician who didnt want to replicate the feel of a beloved record, if not its chords and melody, has yet to be born, the verdict sent shudders through the industry.

Much of the feel of a song is created by instrumentation, production techniques and other elements that many people consider to not be part of the song itself, says Peter Mason, a music law expert at the solicitors Wiggin LLP. The difference is starkly demonstrated by comparing Blurred Lines to the Stairway to Heaven case, in which the jury was limited to considering only the notes of the composition, as registered at the US copyright office.

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams performing at Miami Beach, Florida, in 2013. A court in 2018 ordered them to pay $5m to the estate of Marvin Gaye. Photograph: Startraks/Rex

Taking away the similarities in sound, feel or playing style reduced the similarity between the compositions. Importantly, much of what remained was commonplace and therefore not protected by copyright.

Nevertheless, says Oxendale, We are aware of a number of well-known clients who have been told to never cite the source of their inspiration in public or in print. This, in my view, has resulted in the stifling of creativity to the extent that inspiration is now being confused with appropriation.

Conversely, we are also seeing a growing number of instructions from clients who wish to pursue claims for infringement of copyright based on the use of nothing more than similar musical or lyrical ideas. I believe the Blurred Lines verdict has had a significant impact on the music industry as a whole and this is reflected in the number of cases coming into our office.

For all the high-profile court cases, though, many music copyright infringement claims never see the light of day. One major star who must remain nameless employed a musicologist for the specific purpose of listening to new releases in order to note any resemblance to their own works. The writer of any offending song received a polite note expressing the desire to avoid any embarrassment, and suggesting the whole matter might be resolved by a payment, without the need to shame the writer by going public or forcing a change to the songwriting credits.

Since the Blurred Lines case, notes Mason, other songwriters have pre-empted litigation by adding writers who might conceivably have had a claim to writing credits famously, Mark Ronsons worldwide hit Uptown Funk ended up with 11 writers. The average number of writers on hit songs has increased dramatically over the last five years or so, Mason says, and part of this is due to composers agreeing to add the authors of past songs that are somewhat similar.

Why, though, do all the best-known copyright infringement cases come from the worlds of pop and rock? After all, one rarely hears of classical composers fighting it out in court, or jazz players arguing furiously about whether one has ripped off the others saxophone solo.

I think there are two reasons, Bennett says. First, popular song is a constrained art form, with a palette of statistically predictable phrase lengths, song forms, scale and chord choices, lyric tropes and song durations. These norms are largely defined by market forces, through massed listener preferences over time affecting the kind of creative decisions that songwriters are likely to make.

Beyonc presesnting the award for record of the year, Uptown Funk, to Mark Ronson during the 2016 Grammy music awards. To avoid litigation, the song was credited with 11 writers. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

Its a type of cultural Darwinism, in a sense, but thats not to diminish the songwriters art writing a world-class hit is incredibly difficult, and needs everyone in the artists production team to excel.

Second, pop is where the money is. A plagiarism lawsuit is a financial matter party A is pursuing party B for compensation, so theres little point in going after someone whose work has not generated significant income.

You might think, of course, that musicians and songwriters are pinching from each other all the time weve all listened to songs and been reminded of something else. There are some artists, in fact, who seem to have made careers out of sounding like someone else: neither ELO nor Oasis would deny their respective debts to the Beatles.

Sometimes, though, musicians dont even realise they are borrowing. On a recent edition of the Reply All podcast, Princes longtime recording engineer Susan Rogers remembered him sitting at the piano and picking out a melody. He liked it, he noted. But had it already been written?

Subconscious recollection is called cyrptomnesia, and it has been responsible for some notable copyright infringements: in the 1976 case where George Harrison was sued for the similarity of My Sweet Lord to the Chiffons Hes So Fine, the judge described the similarity as an example of unconscious copying. Sam Smiths Stay With Me ended up getting Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne added to its writing credits, because of its similarity to their song Wont Back Down, and Petty observed, without rancour: All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by.

As Bennett puts it: Most melodic similarity is coincidental, and most accusations of melodic plagiarism are unfounded. In the rare cases when the similarity is so striking that it appears to be evidence of plagiarism, then yes its usually unintentional. Songwriters have almost zero incentive to copy melodies verbatim, and enormous economic disincentives to do so.

The miracle, perhaps, is not that there are so many accusations of musical copyright infringement, but so few. Consider that thereare just 12 semitones in an octave. Or think about how many songs that derive from the blues use the 1-4-5 chord progression (Twist and Shout; Blitzkrieg Bop; Louie Louie and Wild Thing and thousands more). What makes a song special is not its chords, or its top-line melody, or its lyrics, or its feel. It is how it combines all those elements.

Listeners dont hear songs as simple linear sequences of pitches they hear everything all at once, and its that combination of elements, in a recording or at a live show, that produces the powerful emotional response that we find so intoxicating, Joe Bennett says. If the cultural value of a song subsisted only in its melody, the world wouldnt need performers, lyricists, producers, or artists.

And, as everyone sitting in their living room gazing at the empty world outside knows, the word really does need all those people, for the sake of its sanity.

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The stars childhood will be the basis for Atlantis, a project thats being characterized as a music version of Romeo and Juliet

Pharrell Williams life is set to inspire a big-screen musical called Atlantis.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the project will be based on the singers younger years in Virginia Beach. Initial reports suggest it will be similar to Romeo and Juliet, but with songs.

The film will reunite Pharrell with Fox, the studio he worked with on Oscar-nominated drama Hidden Figures. He acted as producer for the film, as well as providing much of the music.

Atlantis will be directed by Michael Mayer, known for his work on Broadway, including stints on Spring Awakening and American Idiot. His big-screen credits include family drama Flicka and upcoming Chekhov adaptation The Seagull.

At the age of 12, Pharrell was sent to a school for gifted children where he met Chad Hugo and they formed the Neptunes. He sold his first single at the age of 19.

The news arrives as the musical genre is in the middle of a major box-office comeback. Last years Oscar-winning romance La La Land has made $427m worldwide from a budget of just $30m while Disneys live-action Beauty and the Beast is close to $700m globally after just one week of release.

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The journey to Wednesdays Apple event raises important questions: was the OneRepublic song really about Steve Jobs? And why Sweet Home Alabama?

The Apple event that saw the unveiling of the iPhone 7 and AirPods opened with a short film of CEO Tim Cook in a Carpool Karaoke session with Late Late Show host James Corden. It was just about as awkward as it sounds.

The video of Corden escorting Cook to the event in San Francisco, opens with the pair belting OneRepublics I Lived, which includes the lyric: Hope when the crowd screams out, theyre screaming your name.

Not to read too much into the choice, but is it a stretch to imagine this particular sentiment resonating with Cook, who is not and never will be Steve Jobs? I mean, hes literally about to take the stage at an Apple product launch, and just last year there was an entire film dedicated to scenes of crowds rapturously greeting Steve Jobs as he took the stage at product launches.

After the pair engage in some banter and messing about with Siri, the singer-songwriter-producer Pharrell Williams hops into the backseat, and the trio break into Lynyrd Skynyrds 1974 hit Sweet Home Alabama.

Cook hails from Mobile, Alabama, which might explain the song choice or could there be another element at work here? Lynyrd Skynrd wrote the song as a something between a response to and attack on Neil Young, who in recent years has become more and more devoted to the development of the Pono, a portable digital media and music player that Young would very much like you to believe is a competitor to Apples various products. Is Cook throwing shade?

The video is the most fun youll have watching an ageing CEO strain to appear good-natured all day, assuming that the remainder of your day doesnt somehow involve finding yourself in Elon Musks office as he realizes that someone has moved the blotter on his desk a quarter-inch to the left.

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Tis the season for an all-conquering pop anthem, but 2016 has failed to produce a sunshine hit. Should we blame it on Brexit, or is it Drakes fault?

When pop star and millennial tastemaker Lorde tweeted earlier this month, guys @ToveLo is casually about to drop the pop song of the summer, it seemed too good to be true. Would Tove Los Cool Girl, accompanied by a jolly gif of the Swedish singer flashing her bum, succeed where so many had failed? Could 2016 finally have its ubiquitous sunshine banger?

Apparently not. Lordes idea of the sort of song you can dance all night to is for head nodding instead. Where is our Get Lucky, our I Gotta Feeling, our Macarena? Where is our Saturday Night? The upbeat summer song is as essential to the months of June, July and August as wearing flip-flops to work. This was our last chance and we fluffed it.

How Lo can you go?

Summer 2016 looks destined to be remembered as the season when nothing stuck. No definitive tune rang out in the lidos, no consensus spread across social media, and no song embedded itself deeply enough in collective memory to be swooned over by Rylan Clark-Neal in I Love Summer 2016 telly specials to come. Dig about for song of the summer on social media and youll find fans resorting to bigging up tracks from the hammy likes of Adam Lambert and Meghan Trainor. No consensus, no surefire summery vibes. We didnt fight in the LMFAO wars for this.

There were more credible contenders, of course. We could have made a proper hit out of Dua Lipa sizzler Hotter Than Hell (it reached No 15 in the UK), admitted we actually enjoyed the dad-disco of Justin Timberlakes Cant Stop The Feeling, or embraced the Avalanches Jackson 5-ish Because Im Me. Still, these are slim pickings. Sure, Sia and Sean Pauls Cheap Thrills has beamed out of every high street shop but would your mum know the chorus? Theres nothing to unite the people any more.

A poisonous political atmosphere hasnt helped, but we cant lay it all on Kimye versus Taylor. There was Brexit, too. But, if anything, summer pop thrives against doomy headlines. Even in 1984, with every second top 10 hit predicting a nuclear winter Frankie Goes To Hollywoods Two Tribes, Nik Kershaws I Wont Let The Sun Go Down On Me, Ultravoxs Dancing With Tears In My Eyes Black Laces Agadoo stole the season. Reggie N Bollie could have at least cheered us up with some novelty bilge. There are worse ideas. Possibly.

But perhaps summer 2016s real Grinch is Drake. As One Dance annexed the No 1 spot, July came around and we were still saddled with a song from early spring a summer anthem by default. Well get no California Gurls or Hot In Herre this year, but well always have One Dance. It feels like it already.

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With stars including Pitbull, Cheap Trick, Pharrell and Fifth Harmony, all this awards show seemed to prove is that country wants to be all things to all people

Nothing says country music more than Cheap Trick. But then again, at the CMT awards on Wednesday, the legendary Illinois power-pop band played with Billy Ray Cyrus, whose own country music credentials are questionable, so does it really matter?

The CMT awards are the third country music awards show this year and the overlap is already showing. In April, the Academy of Country Music awards culminated in a brooding performance of Humble and Kind by Tim McGraw who performed surrounded by a multi-ethnic, multiracial cast of people tasked to illustrate global harmony. On Wednesday, McGraw, the song, and a similar crop of people this time on video provided by Oprah Winfrey appeared a second time. Other performances from Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line were reruns too.

What made this show different from the ACMs and American Country Countdown awards in May is that fans are the ones voting and the awards are primarily focused on music videos. There were also fewer them just seven in the three-hour show. That included a new award, #SocialSuperstar of the Year, designed to honor artists who are pioneering social media as a tool to regularly interact with fans through a multitude of platforms and apps, that actually had nothing to do with music. Blake Shelton picked up the hardware on that one, but even he couldnt pretend it didnt seem farcical.

Jimi Westbrook, Kimberly Schlapman, Pharrell Williams, Karen Fairchild and Phillip Sweet close out the 2016 CMT awards. Photograph: Frederick Breedon IV/FilmMagic

CMTs social superstar? Thats not what I was going for, but what the hell? I mean, I like to have a few drinks and get on Twitter every now and then. But I didnt know you could get paid for that, he said. See kids, theres something for yall to strive for.

Musically the show went much farther than its predecessors in showing that mainstream country music wants to be everything and anything to whoever will buy in. Besides the requisite line-up of familiar stars and hot up-and-comers, performances were stocked in unusual pairings. Its difficult to imagine the thought behind resurrecting a hack like Cyrus, disguised behind a Wolfman Jack beard and sunglasses, in a duet with Cheap Trick. On Surrender, Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander had to feed Cyrus lyrics as he wailed, while on Dont Be Cruel, Cyrus attempted an Elvis Presley impression bloated-era Elvis, which considering the result was highly appropriate.

Noted country artists Leona Lewis, Pitbull and Cassadee Pope. Photograph: Frederick Breedon IV/FilmMagic

The night continued like that. Pitbull appeared to perform Messin Around, which includes a snippet from that classic country ballad, REO Speedwagons Take It on the Run. Pharrell, who played percussion behind Little Big Town on the Latin-tinged One Dance, also chimed in.

Because the show was broadcast from the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, there was also a healthy dose of arena country. Carrie Underwood performed a literal version of Church Bells, joining a black-robed church choir that upped the revelry to the rafters. On the other side of the spectrum, Keith Urban delivered banjo-driven power rock but the song was stymied by the awkwardness of newcomers Maren Morris and Brett Eldredge. But the lowest point in the exercise was when newcomer Cam teamed with Fifth Harmony. Its true there were five of them. And once or twice they tried to harmonize. But otherwise, this nasal-pitched, finger-wagging quintet had remarkably unremarkable vocal chops.

Balancing moments like that were more subdued performances that relied more on songwriting and expressive vocal strength than musical theater grandiloquence. Dierks Bentley and pop singer Elle King, playing banjo, joined in a duet of the moody ballad Different For Girls, while Chris Stapleton performing Parachute included Willie Nelson harmonica player Mickey Raphael.

Underwood won the most hardware, for female video of the year and CMT performance of the year. But was anyone counting? Even Shelton, CMTs social media winner of the night, didnt bother to mention his award on Twitter.

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