Is there really plagiarism in music?

A news piece recently published on the German newspaper Deutsche Welle (DW) online, “Music plagiarism: two seconds of beat and two decades of litigation“, competently raised the question as to whether there really is – or can be – plagiarism in music. Cases of litigation involving both artists and record companies abound, and as the news piece rightly points out, the more famous the artist, the higher the sums involved, and the higher the likelihood of litigation.

This obviously raises a very interesting question: when suing a famous artist, is one driven by a sense of justice and a desire to make things right, or is one trying to make money (or some other kind of profit, including a sense of revenge) out of it? When is the moment right to disclose that some material (music, text, film, …) is a case of plagiarism?

There is certainly no excuse for plagiarism, and plagiarising other people’s words, works or ideas certainly is immoral – not to mention illegal. But how moral is it to wait until someone is famous to then reveal that that person has plagiarised – only for one’s own advantage? As I argued elsewhere (see “Whistleblowers on Plagiarism and the Moral Grey Area“), analysing cases of plagiarism can really stand on a moral grey area, so no decisions should be made before fully informed, scientific and grounded assessments are made by experts. That’s why the role of forensic linguists in cases of linguistic plagiarism is so crucial.

Obviously, as linguistic texts and music are two different modes, analyses cannot be based on identical criteria, but some of those criteria can be adapted and adjusted. That will allow the expert report to address one of the points raised by the DW news piece: the extent to which some combination of words or tones is unique or, on the contrary, rather common. More than the intuition of the audience is required to make a just and fair decision.

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