"Steal" Your Latest Song? 5 Ways to Avoid Accidental Plagiarism.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.

Composers sometimes get the “I think I’ve heard this before” fear. It’s a very real issue because successful songs are a mix of innovative ideas with established songwriting practice. And with the balance firmly toward predictable, songwriting can present you with the nagging fear that you might have accidentally plagiarized your new song.

Most plagiarism is indeed accidental, and to set your mind at ease, it doesn’t happen very often. But it can, as George Harrison found out when he wrote “My Sweet Lord,” which sounded uncannily (and unintentionally) like The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine.”

The problem comes from several directions. Chord progressions are not protected by copyright, so the basic underlay, the “landscape” if you will, of various songs can sound very similar. This causes a potential problem for melody, which is protected by copyright. Chords will allow, or at least imply, certain melody notes while making other notes unlikely. So two songs with the same chord progression will have a higher risk of nearly-identical melodies.

And since songs from a similar genre will tend to use similar instrumentation and possibly even basic beat, you’ve laid the groundwork for possible unintended theft.

So what can you do to minimize the chance of plagiarism? Here are some tips:

  1. Play your song for close friends or family, and tell them that you are worried that certain aspects of it sound similar to something else that you can’t put your finger on. If it’s been copied, you’ve got a better chance that someone in a less subjective position will know.
  2. If possible, try to narrow down the bar or two that sound similar. If it’s the melody you worry about, sing it over and over to yourself without the lyric.
  3. Play the song in a higher or lower key. Sometimes changing the basic range (tessitura) will suddenly reveal the hidden source to you.
  4. Play the song using a different time signature, or with a different tempo or basic background beat.
  5. Play the song from someone in the industry who has a thorough knowledge of repertoire from your genre. Tell them that you fear that it sounds like something you know.

Again, remember that chord progressions are not protected by copyright. And also consider this: it is very possible that certain melodic shapes will occur in your song that have occurred in others. Since melodies are a combination of stepwise motion and leaps, you’re likely going to stumble across shapes that have been used before, and this is acceptable. If the similarities continue for more than a few notes, and are combined with similar chords, instrumentation, tempo, and so on… you may want to fix the problem.

In many cases, the accidental plagiarism can be solved easily by altering the melodic shape. Keep the chords, but go back to the melody and see if there is a way to either move it upward to a new chord tone, or change the direction. For example, if your melody consists of some upward moving leaps that sound the same as another song, change the direction of the leaps, or the actual intervals you’ve used. Also, consider adding in some innovative elements like offbeat accents or changing time signatures.

Click here to check out “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” suite of songwriting e-books. They’ll get you writing the songs that keep people humming!

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  1. Thank you so much for the post, makes me feel better that there’s others that have this problem. I write a “song” and it sounded similar to Justin bieber’s “mark my words” I’m still gonna finish but try and edit it a little differently in ableton live.

    Wish me luck guys, and hope I’m not sued…

  2. Pingback: Speed of Sweet Victory – MY SWEET LORD – George Harrison – median harmonic tempo measurements for everyone. | mean speed®

  3. Great post. I’ve been writing a lot of songs recently and wrote a rock blues tune that I really like to play with my band. Only problem is I couldn’t help like I’d heard part of the verse before. I couldn’t what I thought it sounded like, and everyone I played it for said they thought it was original. Then it hit me that a few patterns in the verse sounded like “I Hate Myself for Loving You” by Joan Jett. I examined the sheet for that song and the notes aren’t the same (proportionally that is, since they’re in different keys I compared them by order in their respective scales,) neither are the chords. However, the movement you talked about is a bit similar. How do I tell if this is copied or not? Would you be willing to listen to a 1:30 sound bite if I sent it to you to help determine this? Thanks.

  4. Hi Gary. Thanks for this post. I found my way here when I ran a search for “accidental plagiarism.” I’ve been creating music for games on the side for a few years now, and I’m hoping to someday turn it into a full time career. As I was working on a current project, I realized that a melody line I’d come up with closely imitated that of part of a the soundtrack for Prince Caspian, but just for one bar, and the chord progression behind it was different.

    However, while exploring this, I discovered that I’d unintentionally copied a much bigger part of this same soundtrack while working on an earlier project. The meter was different, and there were very slight differences in the melody – but only a stray 8th note here and there. At the time that I worked on that project, I had only seen the movie once, but my brain had filed that bit of music away.

    …so now I’m fearful of doing this again. Thanks for the advice you give in this post.

  5. Nice post, but I found it’s all really ambiguous in the world of songwriting, the main concept being probably – the bigger you play, the more likely you’re gonna get sued. Found some nice (and ridiculous) stories on the web. The first one is about Black Eyed Peas and some unknown act getting a lawsuit against the former. http://perezhilton.com/2010-01-27-black-eyed-peas-sued-again-for-plagiarism
    The unknown singer claims BYP stole her song, but I had a listen and they just ARE NOT SIMILAR at all to me)) The second story is about Avril Lavigne and her “Girlfriend”, some 70s group tried to sue her because she used the words “Girlfriend” and “Hey, hey, hey” in her lyrics…In my opinion, that’s just ridiculous, the English language, rhythms and love themes are not subject to copyright and I hope Avril won in the end…..Seems like people who are not as popular as stars are just trying to get their piece of money pie..

    • Yes, I’ve heard lots of those same sort of stories. You’re right, it does seem that the higher up the ladder you get, the more likely you’ll find people who want a piece of your success. I guess they figure that it’s worth a try. And as you say, some of the claims are pretty ridiculous.


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