Ever since I wrote a blog recently about IU’s plagairism accusations and melodic plagiarism in general, I’ve been bombarded with people asking the following:
I’ve been reluctant to dive into answering this question, simply because I don’t want to be “that guy” who people run to whenever there’s a new plagiarism case to ask what I think. The whole point of my last blog was to hopefully get people to realise that similarity in music is a completely normal thing across all music styles and genres and to stop fucking obsessing over it, and of course plenty of people completely missed that point and instead used the post as a tool to obsess about the issue and picked things apart even more – which was exactly the opposite to what I intended. Yay me.
It’s really amusing to me that any of this comes up as a hot issue for k-pop fans at all, given that the entire genre of k-pop itself is a complete carbon copy of western pop. If there’s one bunch of music fans who should be completely fine about hearing things sounding like other things, you’d think k-pop fans should be it. Yet the questions persist, so as usual I’m not going to just answer this question specifically, but I’m going to take a look at the much broader issue of what constitutes a musical theft, in the (probably vain) hope that you never feel the need to ask me or anybody else about this shit ever again, because you will totally understand it. So here we go.
At first listen, they don’t sound much like each other at all. Different genres for a start. Then you realise when the backing starts to kick in that it’s the same chords and the rhythm kind of sounds the same once you remove that heavy beat that Primary has added. Hmmm… plagiarism? Well, if we’re going to decide if something is plagiarism, first we need to know what that is, legally speaking. I did talk about this before in the other blog post about IU and Nekta but I only really focused on the melodic plagiarism aspect that was relevant to that specific case, and not some of the other aspects. I’ll try to keep this simple and free of jargon so an 8-year old Super Junior fan can follow it… and remember, I’m only writing this shit because y’all begged me to. Be careful what you wish for, hey kids.
Okay so: all musical works are copyright to the person who wrote them, by default (although to prove your copyright in a court of law, you need your musical work to be in some kind of physical form such as sheet music or a recording). Copyrights can be sold or transferred, they can be borrowed or donated, and they can also be stolen. Plagiarism therefore refers to someone “stealing your copyright” and passing off your work as their own, and/or using your work without your permission. Key points:
* It’s not plagiarism if the person using your work actually has permission, or has purchased the rights to the song from whoever owns those rights.
…in fact it’s exactly the same song, with different words, but it doesn’t fucking matter because SM credited the original and also got permission so it’s all good. To be honest, that’s a hell of a lot more trouble than most people go to when they cover other people’s material – more obscure artists will still usually credit the original but not bother to actually seek permission, instead they’ll just do their own version of the song anyway and hope nobody notices. Know that the original rights holder can actually shut them down legally and prevent this if they choose, it’s rare but it does happen, because an original songwriter would receive royalties if the cover becomes a hit and they are credited, so they’re usually happy to let things slide – but not always. Obviously a group as high profile as Girls’ Generation can’t get away with that shit so they go the ultra-legal route and cross their t’s and dot their i’s before releasing anything – and that’s the reason why Girls’ Generation’s version of this song took five years to come out.
* It’s not plagiarism if you don’t even own the fucking original in the first place.
Ke$ha was pitched this song originally by songwriters/producers Alex James, Busbee, and Kalle Engström, she recorded a demo of it (linked) but decided that it didn’t suit her style and not to go ahead with an official release. Later, this song was sold to SM Entertainment who obviously felt that it suited Girls’ Generation just fine.
* It’s not plagiarism if the work isn’t actually your own work, but is a “soundalike”.
A few examples off the top of my head – this list could easy be ten times as long if I’d bothered to put actual effort in:
All of these above examples fall into the spectrum of what we call “genre-based similarity”. Songs of the same genre have a tendency to sound the same, simply because similarities between genres are what defines those genres in the first instance. Some genres have such a regimented form that it’s impossible NOT to create soundalikes – doo-wop is an example of a genre where literally EVERY SINGLE SONG is a soundalike of something else.
Are some of the examples in the list above perhaps a bit cheeky and borderline? Hell yeah. IU & Fiestar not only cop the same chord progression as a-ha, but they even use the same song structure and keyboard patch! It’s obviously more than chance – the producers clearly listened to “Take On Me” and said “okay guys – let’s do something that sounds like that”. However, it’s not illegal to do that, as long as you don’t exactly copy melodies. The keyboard riff in “Sea Of Moonlight”, while certainly close to a-ha’s song, isn’t exactly the same, and the vocal melodies aren’t the same either… so therefore they’re not the same song, even though they sure do sound similar. You need, at the very least, exactly (and I mean exactly) the same melody for a reasonable portion of the song, we’re talking at least four bars worth of vocals or lead instrument here as a general rule. K-pop producers mostly aren’t stupid (a notable exception later) – they know exactly how far they can push it before they’ve crossed a line, and you can get as upset about it as you want – it’s not plagiarism if they know exactly where that line is drawn and you don’t.
Another way you can get pinged for plagiarism is the fine art of sampling – taking snatches of other people’s songs and incorporating them into your own songs. Sampling is to music a bit like what collage is to visual art. But samples are in everything these days, right? So how do people get away with it?
For a sample to be legally actionable by the original owner of the work, it has to be a “recognisable portion”, which is essentially another way of saying “don’t get caught”. A single guitar strum or a drum is not going to be legally actionable. Chain a few drum hits and guitar strums and the likelihood of legal action increases exponentially. Sampling a snatch of a famous piece of music is the most extreme form of sampling and is a bit like cutting out a picture of a can of a well known soft drink and sticking it in a collage work. Your result may still arguably be creative and original if you’re used the existing sample in a new way, like shoving the soft drink bottle up Taeyang’s ass in your collage work, but the beverage company is probably still going to try and sue your butt off if your art piece becomes famous and noticeable enough for it to draw the soft drink CEO’s attention. It’s a “recognisable portion” of their brand and they may not approve of you profiting from their name, or even if you’re not making money they still may not approve of the association between their drink and Taeyang’s ass.
(There are limited exceptions to the rule on the grounds of “fair use through education and satire” though, so I’m totally allowed to show you this image to illustrate the concept for educational purposes. Gosh, just as well.)
The same kinds of rules that apply to traditional songwriting plagiarism also apply to sampling:
* It’s not plagiarism if the person using the sample got permission and credited you
* It’s not plagiarism if you don’t own the original, because you signed/gave it away or whatever
* It’s not plagiarism if it’s not actually your original being sampled but just something that sounds like it
Now that we know what music plagiarism is and is not, let’s talk about Primary.
Firstly, the songs don’t sound anything like each other, they’re not even the same genre. The melodies in Primary’s song in the rare cases when they appear aren’t even in the same ballpark. The chords are the same – sometimes, but the beat mostly isn’t even close and then there’s all that ‘rap’ stuff. So “melodic plagiarism” in the IU/Nekta sense is definitely out of the question.
What about sampling? Did Primary sample and loop Caro Emerald’s riff? Well… no. If you listen close it’s not the same sound. What Primary has done instead is get someone to play something kind of similar and sample that instead. The differences are obvious if you listen for them. Primary’s version has much “brassier” horn parts, presumably a production choice to make the horn riff stand out over the heavy drum-machine beat, whereas Caro Emerald has a much smoother sound to her backing that suits the more mellow rhythm.
This is “soundalike sampling” and it’s a common practice in sample-based music that allows people who like working with samples to reappropriate ideas while conveniently side-stepping those icky legal problems. It’s not coincidence – Primary would have done this on purpose. It’s also not illegal. It’s not even all that uncreative – he’s definitely reinterpreted Caro’s song in a new way. Getting someone else’s riff, copying it and then using it in a whole other genre effectively is not something that just anybody can do and get good results with. I mean, listen to how it sounds when people fail:
You can sample the best song in the world but if you suck, the result will still suck.
And I know you people will mention it if I don’t bring it up so here’s a quick run-through of some of the other allegations re: Primary, here’s two comparison videos that aren’t worth a damn:
All clearly a case of “inspired by” and similar rhythms but the melodies aren’t really the same so fuck off. Just because you stick together some songs and claim “plagiarism” doesn’t make it so!
Also there were some worthless articles that compared the MV visual style between this Primary song:
And a Caro Emerald song, I think it was this one, from memory:
It might have been another one as a lot of Caro Emerald’s videos have the same visual style anyway. Not that it matters – you can’t copyright “a bunch of people standing in a room with a curtain looking all retro with washed out colour and fonts and shit” as a concept for fucks’ sake. Whoever wrote that original article Netizenbuzz is translating is a fucking idiot, and so are the netizens for being typically dumb about it. Metallica might as well copyright the headbang and sue every other metal group with headbanging into their video (in fact I wouldn’t put something like that completely past litigation-happy Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich). The first rapper who ever wore gold chains in a video while bikini-clad girls danced in the background could sue every other one too, etc.
Also, there’s the ever-so-slightly-important fact that Caro Emerald’s producers are actually not all that bothered by any of this. If the person who wrote the original doesn’t even have a major problem with it, why should YOU? It’s not plagiarism if the other party approves.
So if Primary didn’t plagiarise, who did?
Good luck finding a decent quality version of La Materialista’s initially-uncredited rip-off of 2NE1’s “I Am The Best” anywhere on YouTube or anywhere else for that matter because YG shut down this dumb woman’s shit faster than you can say “Minzy plagiarised Soyeon’s nose idea”. La Materialista then later released the above modified version with just enough differences to get over the plagiarism line legally.
Bahnus (for Lee Hyori):
Same chorus melody, not soundalike, but literally the same – a key point. It also helps that the lyrics are the same – you’d be amazed how much weight lyrical similarity carries in a plagiarism case. Clearly showing legal balls of steel, Lee Hyori’s producer Bahnus stole a ton of stuff from various places for the H-Logic album, which suggests that maybe H-Logic is not best logic.
Enough said. Those dirty SNSD bitches. They copied EVERYTHING.