Retroactive Credit and the Future of Music Plagiarism

Earlier this week, musician Olivia Rodrigo gave two members of the band Paramore retroactive credit on her song Good 4 U. The move came after many users began to notice similarities between Good 4 U and the 2007 Paramore song Misery Business, with some fans even creating mashups of the two songs.

Though the reasons for the decision aren’t cle-ar, it was likely not one taken lightly. With those credits comes a portion of the royalties for the song’s competition, which are likely quite significant given the popularity of the track. Regardless, this completely heads off any potential legal battle over the two songs and their overlaps.

However, this led Joe Vitagliano at American Songwriter to ask a simple question: Is Retroactive Credit The New Way To Get Away With Plagiarism?

It’s a valid question because, as Vitagliano points out, Rodrigo isn’t the first to do it. Other musicians including Sam Smith, Mark Ronson, Katy Perry and more have done similar things.

However, Vitagliano argues that Rodrigo is a unique case as she has only released one album and has already faced allegations of plagiarism both in two of her songs and her album’s cover.

But the question remains: Are musicians using retroactive credit as a means of ducking plagiarism? The answer is likely a bit more complicated than that.

(Note: I am not a musicologist and will offer no commentary on the plagiarism allegations themselves, instead, this article intends to focus on the legal and cultural environment that has set up these disputes.)

Blurred Lines, Legal and Otherwise

In March 2015, a jury famously handed down a $7.4 million judgment against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in the famous Blurred Lines case. There, the jury found that the song was an infringement of Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give it Up and ordered the musicians to pay. Though the amount was eventually reduced to $5.3 million, the impact was not changed.

The case made global headlines but, ultimately, was legally unimportant. The outcome of the case was heavily fact-specific and was never going to have much legal impact. That point was driven home five years later when Led Zeppelin emerged victorious in their long-running cases over the song Stairway to Heaven.

But as legally unimportant as the Blurred Lines case was, it was very culturally important. This was highlighted in 2019 when both the New York Times and Vulture released follow-ups on the impact of the case for songwriters and found that, while litigation wasn’t necessarily increasing, interest was.

In short, the Blurred Lines case emboldened those that might become plaintiffs in such cases and intimidated potential defendants.

When you couple this with the fact that copyright litigation can be incredibly expensive, there is a great deal of motivation for would-be defendants to try and find ways to resolve things amicably. After all, a portion of the publishing rights is likely far cheaper than even a victorious lawsuit.

However, there is another element at play, and that’s the changing nature of music itself. In short, it’s getting much more complicated to write and publish.

Too Many Cooks…

In 2017, Music Week performed a study looking at the top hits of the year 2016 and found that the songs had, on average, 4.53 songwriters affixed to them. A similar study done by Music Business Worldwide in 2019 found that the hit songs of 2018 had an average of 9.1 songwriters in the top ten and, if you look at the top 25 the number was still 6.48.

The reasons for this are complex and include more people seeking a cut of the publishing royalties, but also the growing complexity of writing popular music.

With that increased complexity comes increased uncertainty. Every person who contributes to a song brings their influences, inspirations and musical history to the table. If any of them commit plagiarism, knowingly or unknowingly, the whole song is tainted.

When you combine these complexities with the atmosphere of fear that composers are operating in, it’s easy to see what is happening. Basically, similarities that might have been barely noted years ago now have some legal weight, rightly or wrongly, and there is good motivation to reach a deal rather than fight.

Because of this, retroactive credit is likely to become an increasingly common thing in the years ahead, plagiarism or not.

Bottom Line

To be clear, battles over musical plagiarism are nothing new and neither is retroactive credit. Chuck Berry famously targeted The Beach Boys over Surfin’ USA in the 1960s and received retroactive credit in 1966. As this list on Rolling Stone shows, there were many classic cases.

However, it’s also clear that things have changed. Retroactive credit is becoming much more common, and the reasons why are both complex and fairly obvious.

To put it mildly, it’s a very challenging time to be a composer, especially if you’re trying to create the next hit song. It’s a more complex environment than ever, and potential plaintiffs feel very emboldened, setting up potential legal challenges that might not have happened just ten years ago.

Writing a hit song was never easy, but it is definitely getting more difficult…