Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

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It has been said that good artists copy and great artists steal. In Undertones episode 2, we explore how this phrase applies to music, and the legal and ethical grey area of taking inspiration from other artists!

Kai Vosberg 0:00
The history of the phrase "Good artists copy. Great artists steal." is a game of telephone that spans 1000s of miles and several decades. Steve Jobs famously attributed it to the renowned artist Pablo Picasso, but this claim is heavily disputed. Others insist that composer Igor Stravinsky coined the phrase and others still attest that both Stravinsky and Picasso were echoing a remark from poet TS Eliot, "Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal." Perhaps this muddled history only legitimizes the meaning of the proverb. Great Ideas rarely happen in a vacuum, and what is art without influence? After all, Lion King is Disney's version of Hamlet. Star Wars is a Greek epic set in space, and Greta Van Fleet is Led Zeppelin for millennials. In a world of increasing connectivity, wholly novel and unique ideas are becoming harder and harder to come by. Today, we'll be exploring what it means to have ownership of an idea in both a legal sense and an ethical sense, and how those two perspectives are often in opposition to each other. For WKNC 88.1 My name is Kai Vosberg and you are listening to Episode 2 of Undertone.

Kai Vosberg 1:46
The song you just heard is Good 4 U by Olivia Rodrigo. A single from her debut record "sour". According to YouTuber and musician Adam Neely, its chord structure, chorus melody, and general aesthetic have drawn many comparisons to Paramore's 2007 hit Misery Business. So many, in fact, that Paramore received a songwriting credit for Rodrigo's chart topping hit.

Kai Vosberg 2:36
When played consecutively, you can see how Good 4 U might cause a bit of musical deja vu. But the reason that Good 4 U sounds like Paramore is not specific to Misery Business. To understand why, we need to talk about functional harmony.

Kai Vosberg 3:00
Sound familiar? That's because the function of these chords and the relationship between them, regardless of key, creates a balance between tension and resolution that is satisfying for those of us whose ears have been culturally conditioned by the Western tonal system. Here are two pop songs that utilize that progression transposed to the same key and tempo.

Kai Vosberg 3:42
This chord progression is one of four axis progressions outlined in Mark Richard's study of tonal ambiguity in popular music, where A minor, F major, C major or G major and their relative transpositions can all serve as a conceivable homecourt depending on context. For this study, Richards analyzed more than 2500 pop songs released between 1990 and 2016. And each and every one of them used a form of the axis progression. In the case of Linkin Park's Numb, and Lady Gaga's Pokerface, the chords are E minor, C major, G major and D major, which outlines a transposed version of one of these axis progressions. You can also take these chords and play them in a different order from which the other three axis progressions are derived. Here are the same chords played in a different order to accompany to more familiar tunes.

Kai Vosberg 5:01
So, because pop songs often utilize similar harmonic progressions, they are often structurally similar. When we consider just how harmonically similar much of pop music is, we might conclude that chords inhabit a fair use territory, a place where everyone is free to use them to create their music. But in the place where creativity and commodity intersect, the answer is not so clear.

Kai Vosberg 5:52
The song you just heard is Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran, a song that was inescapable in 2015. The same year that it peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Three years later, Sheeran and his creative team found themselves wrapped up in a legal case for the supposed copyright infringement of Marvin Gaye's 1973 hit, Let's Get It On.

Kai Vosberg 6:39
Like Good 4 U and Misery Business, there are a few striking similarities between the works of Sheeran and gay. Unlike Olivia Rodrigo, however, Ed Sheeran finds himself in the midst of an ongoing copyright lawsuit with $100 million at stake. Now we see why private parties might have a vested interest in the ownership of compositional elements of music, to quote structured asset sales, who claimed precisely 1/3 of the rights to Gaye's song, Thinking Out Loud copies various elements of Let's Get It On, including but not limited to the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, baseline, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping. Here, structured asset sales is claiming ownership of not just a chord progression, but the feeling evoked by various songwriting techniques, one that Thinking Out Loud and Let's Get It On share, and suing for damages to the tune of approximately half of Ed Sheeran's net worth. But how do you own a chord or for that matter, a feeling? How can a legal entity claim ownership of something as subjective as music with any degree of objectivity. As it stands, the jury is still out on the Thinking Out Loud case. But if the court rules in favor of the plaintiff, it could set a dangerous precedent for musicians going forward. Since pop music often relies on the same harmonic material, anyone who can claim ownership of chords can ostensibly claim ownership of any work that uses them, or at least file a frivolous lawsuit about it. Imagine if Picasso patented collaging, or if Michael Bay owned the rights to the lens flare. Outside of a legal setting, this is an issue that penetrates the very heart of the artistic tradition. Clearly, Olivia Rodrigo was inspired by Paramore and Ed Sheeran was inspired by Marvin Gaye. But to claim their work is wholly derivative would not only dismiss their unique artistic voices, but would also discredit the very phenomenon of art inspiring other art, something that is essential to creative expression. After all, there is a reason that the phrase "Good artists copy, Great artists steal" has endured for so long. It was stolen so many times that we don't even know who came up with it. Thank you for listening to episode 2 of Undertones.

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Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal
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