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Music Plagiarism – How It Is Detected & Consequences

June 24, 2021 • 4 min read

There is a lot to be talked about when it comes to music copyright laws. It’s important to learn all the rules so you don’t mistakenly engage with music plagiarism. You have to understand how to detect it and the consequences of going forward without proper clearance. Good thing we are here to help you navigate this complex subject. Keep on reading to get the full scoop on everything about music plagiarism.  

What is music plagiarism?

Nowadays, plagiarism seems to be a hot topic in the music industry. Left and right, artists are being accused of copying other people’s work. In this context, it is worth reading up on what actually is music plagiarism. For all purposes, we will focus here on the legal aspects of this question. According to the law, music plagiarism is characterized by the use of copyrighted material in a song without proper authorization from the rights-holder. A lot of people tend to think of plagiarism as a whole, meaning that a plagiarized song must be identical to the original in every beat. But this absolutely isn’t the case. It is a legal infraction to use any part of an existing song in your work and passing it as your own. So, as long as you are doing that, you’re breaking the law.  

Legal aspects

We have said before that we should focus here on the legal definition of music plagiarism. For all accounts, this is the official guideline you should stick by in your creation. In the US, the Copyright Law of 1976 states that copyright is automatically created as the song is written. So, whenever a song crosses over to what already exists, it is considered plagiarism. The law is clear when it says that anything that reflects a “minimal spark” of creativity and originality is a part of the copyrights. But what does that mean, in practical terms? Through the years, courtrooms have relied on two basic aspects do detect plagiarism: access and substantial similarity. First, they are going to judge if the defendant has had access to the original copyrighted piece. The debate revolves around if they have ever heard the original before or could have reasonably had contact with it in the past. Second, we have the question of substantial similarity, which is a bit more subjective. Here, it has to be decided if the resemblance between the two songs can be identified by the average listener. But who is that average listener? Traditionally, this question has been judged by the rule of thumb. The more elements the two songs have in common, the more likely they are to be considered substantially similar. brown wooden stand with black background   If you want to escape from accusations of copy, it’s important to do the reading on what is plagiarism in the music industry. This information is crucial whether you want to learn how to cover a song legally or just create original music. Check out the main elements you should be aware of when it comes to music plagiarism.  


The melody usually is the main element to a song. It sets the theme to that composition, the tune or catch phrase that is most prominent. Usually, it is a repetitive sequence of notes that makes the song recognizable. It is usually present in the vocals or in a leading instrument like piano.  


Moving ahead, we have the harmony. This set of chords lies beneath the harmony, keeping it company throughout the song. Setting the mood in which the melody is to be played enriches the whole composition. A good harmony can turn a simplistic idea into an actual song. It gives some depth and texture to the basic tune.  


Whenever we talk about rhythm, we are talking about a whole different ball game than the two cited above. With no relation to the music’s tonal aspects, the rhythm defines the time dimension to a song. It’s includes the count, tempo and beat. In other words, it is the frame that will hold the song’s structure. Along with harmony and melody, rhythm is one of the three most basic characteristics of a song.  


Once the songwriting part is over, musicians need to work on the arrangement of their music before heading to the studio. The process will consider instrumentation and vocal placements to have a sound that best suits their vision. So, we have the sound as the final product conceived in the recording sessions.  

Consequences to music plagiarism

With copyrighted material, there are four main types of licenses: performance, mechanical, print and sync licensing. Every artist needs to understand their fair share of music copyright laws so they know how to copyright music and don’t risk getting in trouble for plagiarism. In most cases, copyright disputes are settle out of court with a simple waiver of proportional royalties to the original composer. But in the case it doesn’t, the artists can go to trial for the dispute. The lawsuit can drag for months or even years, with both sides having to pay for attorney’s fees. An artist may lose all rights to their song if found guilty of plagiarism.  

Work within the law

Plagiarism is a very serious accusation and should not be taken lightly. Even if you the court finds you not guilty, the legal dispute can raise questions and permanently affect your image as an artist. So, in order to avoid all this hassle, it’s always better to work within the law. Keep on reading our blog posts to be up-to-date on all aspects of songwriting and music distribution. We are here to help you grow your fanbase and get all the recognition you deserve.
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