Copyright infringement?

Jelly Roll Horton

Country Gent
Nov 10, 2017
1,980
Portland, OR
You all probably remember George Harrison was successfully sued by the copyright owners of "He's So Fine" because they thought George stole the melody from them for "My Sweet Lord". (Like George had to steal musical ideas):cool:
I have played in a jug band since 1965 and lots of those songs were adapted for modern, even pop songs. We u sed to call this the folk process, and there were never any major lawsuits about it that I ever saw. Then the recording industry discovered the money in copyright ownerships, and started demanding a fee from venues like company picnics, local bars, or anyone who was going top allow performance of one of their copyrights.

This got me thinking about rock and roll, RnB, and rockabilly and British Invasion songs employing similar/very melody and/or arrangement bases. I have noticed this a lot in country music too.

Here are some I've come up with, and if you can identify some others, please add:
Be Bop a Lula by Gene Vincent = Money Honey by Barrett Strong
Baby Blue by Gene Vincent = Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis
How Long You Wanna Live, Anyway by Stray Cats = Boney Maroney by Larry Williams
Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan = Too Much Monkey Business by The Kinks (which was written by Chuck Berry)
 

dspellman

Gretschie
Jul 4, 2020
397
Los Angeles
Copyright is tricky and has been made even moreso by the politicians who extended copyright protection beyond what *I* think it should be.
Most intellectual property law (including patents) is intended to provide a limited-time monopoly to the artist/inventor in order to encourage innovation and invention.

Copyright time limits were originally 28 years, beyond which the copyrighted work became public domain. If you renewed it during that 28th year you could get an additional 28 years, and THEN the work would become public domain. If you failed to protect your copyright, your work could become public domain. One problem with that is that, for the most part, only those entities with deep pockets can really afford to protect copyrights (getting all the way to a jury trial can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), while those with deep pockets can often afford to steal material that should be protected under copyright laws.

These days I think the limits have extended beyond all sense, to the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. This applies to works created after 1978.

It is *supposedly* coincidental that this extension law was passed just as Disney characters like Mickey Mouse were getting to the point where they'd be public domain. There's a real issue with "orphan works" such as film footage and photographs of world events that were taken by amateurs who may be dead, but who cannot be contacted by those who would use this footage and those photographs in documentaries, etc. for educational purposes. No one wants to include some old found footage only to be sued by someone claiming copyright rights so long after the actual creation.
 

wabash slim

I Bleed Orange
Feb 10, 2010
18,312
lafayette in
The "Werewolves of London" lick has been copied a few times.
Kids' songs like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" shares its melodies with a number of tunes.
Most melodies are written within a two-octave range. That's only 26 notes.
There are only so many combinations you can make out of that.
Add in standard 4/4 timing and that limits things even more.
Everything is built on what came before.
 

Shock

Synchromatic
Sep 7, 2020
620
Minnesota
Here in the Twin Cities we had a rash of clubs that were sued out of business. BMI needs to be paid in order to have a cover band play music in their clubs. Being ambushed, most have thousands of debt and just file bankruptcy and close the doors.

Remember back in the day when you could go meet friends at the local club and play covers and dance? Now it is basically illegal. The current state of copyright laws being enforced by sneaky lawyers video recording someone playing Whole Lotta Rosie will get you shut down by lawsuits. It isn't to protect AC/DC. It is just an opportunity to use the courts to sue the little guy out of existence.

We had some local punks that called themselves "The Black Label Society." The received a cease and desist order from a lawyer from wearing their punk clothes with home made patches because of copyright infringement. I extremely doubt Zak Wilde had any knowledge of it. I know for fact the Black Label punks were around for years before the name of their club was copyrighted used by someone else.

End of rant.
 

mrfixitmi

Country Gent
Mar 20, 2010
1,960
Michigan
Here in the Twin Cities we had a rash of clubs that were sued out of business. BMI needs to be paid in order to have a cover band play music in their clubs. Being ambushed, most have thousands of debt and just file bankruptcy and close the doors.

Shock, I completely agree with you.
We had the same thing happen here with open mic nights in coffee houses. Realistically, a small percentage goes there for the music. Most of the people are socializing with the open mics being used as background music. This is an abuse of power since most covers do not have the same recording sound effects, the same voice, key, range, nor orchestration. If only the big people would realize that getting any type of playtime may open up an interest in someone paying for the CD, or the download of the original. My Grandmother said that Greed is blind, I never understood that until I was much older.
 

thunder58

Super Moderator
Staff member
Dec 23, 2010
27,191
tappan ny
"Werewolves of London" lick has been copied a few times.
D-C-G
Sweet Home Alabama - Lynard Skynard
Wanted Dead or Alive - Bon Jovi
Seagull - Bad Co.
Too Much Time on My Hands - STYX ( the majority of it )
Ring of Fire - Johnny Cash
a few more here ....
 

NJDevil

Country Gent
Jul 9, 2014
1,528
Commack, NY
I know there are quite a few Tom Petty sued, and some successfully, but I immediately thought of Huey Lewis settling out of court with Ray Parker Jr....... "Ghostbusters" infringement of "I Want a New Drug".
 

Webby

Electromatic
Dec 22, 2020
24
germany
How about these 3 tunes?
Tenor Madness by Sonny Rollins


Rue Chaptal by the Clarke Boland Big Band


Royal Roost by Kenny Clarke:
 

dspellman

Gretschie
Jul 4, 2020
397
Los Angeles
Here in the Twin Cities we had a rash of clubs that were sued out of business. BMI needs to be paid in order to have a cover band play music in their clubs. Being ambushed, most have thousands of debt and just file bankruptcy and close the doors.

Remember back in the day when you could go meet friends at the local club and play covers and dance? Now it is basically illegal.
It's been like that for YEARS. Decades, even.

BMI needs to be paid. Those clubs who've skirted that have always had owners who were convinced that they'd never get around to their "little club." So they don't pay. And when they do, they have to go out of business. Or settle for some astronomical figure. That's not an ambush at all. That's poor management. It's a gamble.

We play in clubs where you can "go meet friends...and play covers and dance" and it's not even close to illegal. The owners have spreadsheets and they know pretty much to the dollar what each bit of their business costs them and how much they have to profit on drinks and food to make ends meet.
 

Synchro

The artist formerly known as: Synchro
Staff member
Jun 2, 2008
26,426
Tucson
The value in music, from the standpoint of commercial worth, is in publication of the song. So, if I write a song, I automatically own copyright on that song. Songs can be protected by registering copyright on that song, and that is yours, for a very long time.

So, for instance, suppose someone drops over and I play them a song I wrote, and they learn the song, and make a recording of it which sells well; they owe me for that song. If I had never distributed the song, nor licensed it to someone else, they would be in a bit of a bind, because they had used it without authorization, but no matter what, they would owe me for mechanical rights on any copies sold.

If a song had been distributed, someone can force licensing, so I don’t need the consent of the Beatles to record Yesterday, but I do have to pay the standard rate for mechanical rights to the song.

Specific arrangements can also be copyrighted, so if I were to do a dead on copy of Sinatra’s recording of ”Something”, I would be paying whomever owns that arrangement, and whomever owns the song “Something”.

Rights for live performance are covered by ASCAP and BMI seat taxes, paid by the venue. So, when I play a gig at the Holiday Inn on Friday night, I don’t have to pay the song owners, but the Holiday Inn pays a seat tax for their live venue. Live performance royalties are based upon overall sales, so if I play “Something”, at the Holiday Inn, in 2022, that song is pretty far down the sales curve, and the revenue generated from live performances of an old song wouldn’t be worth the effort to bend over and pick up.

Nothing before 1923 is protected. I can record all of the Stephen Foster, Mozart, Bach, etc. that I want and not have to purchase rights. Copyright on those is exhausted and, if you stop to think about it, what are the chances that a song that old is going to sell like wildfire. If I somehow made Back Home Again In Indiana a hit, the descendants of Stephen Foster would, by now, be so numerous, that once again the proceeds would be diluted to the point of being meaningless.

Of course, there are people out there using the law as a bludgeon, and at least IMHO, missing the point and punishing people needlessly. Some songwriters are quite defensive and search for violators, while others are more passive on the subject.

There is also “new use”. So, if I decide to record Moonlight Feels Right, pay the mechanical rights, and sell some records, that’s just fine. But suppose that a moviemaker falls in love with my recording and wants to put it in his new blockbuster; the songwriter would get more money, because this is a different kind of use. Likewise, I would get paid if they used my recording, or even if they copied my arrangement faithfully, and re-recorded it with different musicians. If they used my recording, and if I had used session players, all of them would get paid again, too.

But now it gets murky, and we’ll refer to My Sweet Lord, and the claim of infringement against He’s So Fine. Chord changes, in and of themselves, are not, to the best of my knowledge, something that can be copyrighted. If they were, the music business would stop dead, instantly. The vast majority of songs use a relatively small number of unique chord progressions. There’s a comedy routine about Pachelbel’s Canon, and how many songs are based on these changes. It’s ok, chords are free.

Harrison used the changes for He’s So Fine at the head of My Sweet Lord. The melody starts out quite similar, as well. Then, it diverges. I’ve never had any problem telling the two songs apart, and when I first heard Harrison’s song, I never thought of it as being similar to He’s So Fine. But the courts saw it differently, and money flowed. I see both sides of this dispute, and would hate to have to make that decision.

I highly doubt that Harrison consciously plagiarized that song, for any number of reasons. First off, why would anyone choose to plagiarize such a lightweight Pop tune? He’s So Fine sold a few copies, in its heyday, but it was all but forgotten after it’s time on the charts. Face it, most Pop tunes don’t have much of a shelf life, and Harrison wasn’t borrowing any glory by using those changes, or even the portion of the melody that is very similar. Deliberately stealing that song would make about as much sense as a car theft ring that targeted Ford Escorts from the ‘80s. You could do it, but why would you want to?

It all comes down to how one identifies a song. If I look at it strictly along those lines, Harrison probably was within his rights. No one would confuse those two songs. Playing music, and being aware of chord progressions, I see a bit of similarity, but there are plenty of examples where this sort of thing has happened. Had it not been someone as righ and famous as Harrison, and had the song not been on an extremely successful album, I doubt that anyone would have sued.

The Wikipedia page on this song goes into the murky dealings involved. As it turns out Allen Klein got involved and things went a bit off the rails. Harrison ended up owning He’s So Fine and the problem was solved. The irony is that Harrison was copying when he wrote that song, but he was copying an old, public domain gospel song called Oh Happy Day. So, if I copy a public domain song (which is perfectly legal) and copyright that song, do I have a right to complain when someone else copies that same old song?

Harrison do make an offer which was far more generous than I would have felt necessary, but the plaintiffs were holding out, believing that they would receive the entire copyright on My Sweet Lord. That would have been a sweet prize indeed, but to me, it has the scent of a money grab.

ASCAP licensing is not cheap. If I licensed a restaurant the size of my home as a performance venue, it would cost between $3,000 & $4,000 per year, just to have music three nights per week. If you were to license a phone booth, it would still be over $400 per year. For a big, booming business, no sweat, but how about a neighborhood coffee shop that makes a modest profit.

I mention this, because a nice little coffee shop in Denver was unable to stay in business, because the seat tax was killing them. It was a neighborhood gathering place that attracted some great Jazz players and had a small, but fervent audience. I doubt that there were ever more than 50 people present, but that pretty much did them in. The thing about licenses for live performance is that they are static. The license cost is based on capacity, and not on how many people actually attend. So a small venue that has one big event per week will pay as if every event, every day was that big. I‘m not a fan of that arrangement, but I can’t suggest any better plan and songwriters deserve to be payed.
 

6187LX

Electromatic
Aug 11, 2022
96
Marineville
Then there's John Fogerty being sued by Saul Zaentz for sounding too much like John Fogerty. Wish I still had my copy of Centerfield with the original Zanz Kant Danz that was forced by lawyers to change to Vanz Kant Danz.
 

Shock

Synchromatic
Sep 7, 2020
620
Minnesota
It's been like that for YEARS. Decades, even.

BMI needs to be paid. Those clubs who've skirted that have always had owners who were convinced that they'd never get around to their "little club." So they don't pay. And when they do, they have to go out of business. Or settle for some astronomical figure. That's not an ambush at all. That's poor management. It's a gamble.

We play in clubs where you can "go meet friends...and play covers and dance" and it's not even close to illegal. The owners have spreadsheets and they know pretty much to the dollar what each bit of their business costs them and how much they have to profit on drinks and food to make ends meet.
Funny story. Joe Walsh was on a late show recently sitting in with the band. The host asks Joe if he will be playing one of his old songs. Joe said no, he can't. That would cost extra. So the host, a little stunned by the answer, asks if he should pass a hat around the audience to take up a collection so Joe can play Life's Been Good." I didn't totally get the joke until now. Thanks for explaining it.
 

dspellman

Gretschie
Jul 4, 2020
397
Los Angeles
Funny story. Joe Walsh was on a late show recently sitting in with the band. The host asks Joe if he will be playing one of his old songs. Joe said no, he can't. That would cost extra. So the host, a little stunned by the answer, asks if he should pass a hat around the audience to take up a collection so Joe can play Life's Been Good." I didn't totally get the joke until now. Thanks for explaining it.
Joe eventually gets paid, too.

But musicians can't really complain about this; this is one of the few ways that songwriters can get paid, unless they run around and personally charge everyone for the use of their work to bring drinkers and diners into a venue and pick up a few cents from the band while they're there.
 

Synchro

The artist formerly known as: Synchro
Staff member
Jun 2, 2008
26,426
Tucson
Joe eventually gets paid, too.

But musicians can't really complain about this; this is one of the few ways that songwriters can get paid, unless they run around and personally charge everyone for the use of their work to bring drinkers and diners into a venue and pick up a few cents from the band while they're there.
He only gets paid if he owns publication on the song. A lot of artists sell their works, preferring the up front money, over royalties which might play out over many decades. Anything Eagles, is very costly to perform. There are different levels of licensing, depending upon where the performance is happening. I can play an Eagles song at a local venue and the seat tax takes care of it, but if I want to play an Eagles song on national television, that is a different license.

This came up on a Letterman show, some years back, and IIRC, they would have to pay $250,000 if they played a popular Eagles song. Frankly, I find that a bit excessive. I like the music of the Eagles, and have both listened to, and played their catalog, extensively, but the aggressiveness with which they protect their intellectual property seems a bit over the top.

With regard to Life’s Been Good; I don’t know who owns publication on it, but it could be that Joe W. has no control over it, whatsoever.
 


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