Copyright

When a Chord Progression Might Be Protected by Copyright

If you like starting your songwriting process with chords, you’re usually OK to take pretty much any chord progression you hear in anyone else’s song. That’s because chord progressions, on their own, are not protected by copyright.

But having said that, there’s a caution here that you should consider when you do, in fact, use someone else’s chord progression: be sure it’s just the chords you’re borrowing, and not other song elements.


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Here’s more about what I mean: When we hear a chord progression from another song, it’s hard for us to consider that progression as a separate entity without considering the way it’s played, the rhythmic pattern that’s used, and perhaps even the voicing of those chords.

And once you start borrowing those elements and adding them to the chords you’ve just borrowed, you’re starting to cross the line, moving into the territory of copyright infringement.

One of the lessons we learned from the “Blurred Lines” court case in 2018 — where the writers of that song (Robin Thicke and Pharrell) were required to compensate the estate of Marvin Gaye because their song sounded too similar to Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up” — is that infringement is a nebulous concept: if a song sounds similar to another copyrighted song, even without copying the actual notes or lyrics, it runs the risk of infringement.

So yes, you are very welcome to take chord progressions that you hear in other songs, as long as you don’t also borrow elements that, when combined, remind listeners of the first song. So any of the following elements that you also borrow, especially in combination, might cause problems:

  • the feel (including genre);
  • the instrumentation;
  • the tempo;
  • the backing rhythm;
  • any other song component.

Just to be clear, you’re completely fine to copy the feel of another song, and that’s how we get genre. And no one has a claim to any one possible tempo. But once you’ve borrowed a song’s chords, and then start adding other elements, you’re playing with fire.

The best advice for using a different song’s chords is to take the progression, write it out, and put it away for a few days. Then take it out, and while trying to ignore where the chords came from, try writing a completely new song that bears little if any resemblance to the original song.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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3 Comments

  1. l’m pretty sure Shakespeare plagiarized :), Seriously he did, obviously not verbatim ,but took some pretty direct full inspiration from other works , plots and characters, but he evolved, embellished and added himself to the point that he synthesized something amazing.

    Nothing is new. Even chord progressions often are found with similar rhythms i.e. there also just so many of those as well.

    Ultimately , if you do it too closely I guess that is what we call re-arrangements.
    Most people , are trying to honestly make things their own i.e. that’s where the fun is in imparting one’s expression.

    Sure courts can be asked to judge but a song’s success is judged by its listeners and their pratronage.

    • True, Shakespeare probably plagiarized, as did many composers both classical and popular. But these days we seem to be in a different world, where even mimicking the feel — not even the actual notes — of another song can result in a lawsuit. For what it’s worth, I think the judgement in the “Blurred Lines” case was wrong. They basically got nailed for copying the feel of an already-existing song, and didn’t, in my view, come close enough to copying actually protected elements to warrant losing that case. I tend to lean more toward your sentiments: nothing is new.

      -Gary

  2. Thanks for your caution regarding chord progressions. It’s probably not much of an issue for most people unless you have a mega hit song. That said in the world of greed and corruption a lawyer could probably indict a ham sandwich. Such is the world we live in.

    That said, I’d be interested in some reflection on true inspirational musicians who had the real “music muse” inside and weren’t so concerned about fame and the big money. To me these people were the most authentic, they had something that still sets them above the crowd and they weren’t corrupted by money. People like Eva Cassidy and Bob Marley, true charisma.

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