Bruce Pennycook

Photo Credit: Amber Perry | Daily Texan Staff

What do Sam Smith, Michael Bolton, Johnny Cash and Vanilla Ice all have in common? They’ve all been sued for copyright infringement.

Plagiarism accusations occur every day in the music industry, yet very few lawsuits come to fruition. The complexity of proving the similarity between two pieces and that an artist has access to the allegedly infringed work is a difficult task because songwriters muddy the line between inspiration and plagiarism.

Oren Bracha, UT law professor and intellectual property expert, said the key to proving plagiarism is finding a similarity between the notes and basic composition of the piece.

“If the original recording had a very distinct element that is just in the performance and not composition, and this is the only similarity, then there’s no case to be had,” Bracha said.

UT music composition professor Bruce Pennycook said the similarities between songs are often obvious, but songs designed to become hits follow a formula, which makes the difference between influence and copying hazy.  

“Almost anyone could hear the similarities between two songs,” Pennycook said. “It’s just that there are thousands of songs with those chord progressions and sounds; simply hearing it isn’t enough. You have to have proof in melody and lyrics.”

“Blurred Lines” performers and writers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams recently forked over $7.3 million to Marvin Gaye’s family after they lost a trial over copy infringement. To ensure the jury didn’t make a decision based on superficial similarities, the court limited their evidence to stripped-down tracks of both songs. 

To avoid controversy, record labels often use software to analyze a song before releasing it. Pennycook said record companies created the program Music Information Retrieval to avoid modern music copyright cases and ensure the protection of their own music.

“The software automatically searches for copyright infringement, comparing the most basic of elements in songs,” Pennycook said. “Companies want to make sure their property is not only original, but protected from infringement by other record labels.”

The hardest part of the case, Bracha said, is proving the artist has heard the alledgedly infringed work at least once. He said many artists aren’t aware they have copied a song because it was in their subconscious.

“When courts find the case of subconscious copying, it’s often a guess at the most plausible story,"  Bracha said. "Under the rules of copyright, unintentional copying is infringement.”

George Harrison of The Beatles lost a court case to infringement over his song “My Sweet Lord,” which resembled The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” The court ruled that Harrison internalized the work, forgot he heard the song and wrote and recorded a similar tune.

Petroleum engineering freshman Shaunik Bhatte said every artist should have the right to their creation, but writers aren’t using their influences to help create original work. Rather, they mirror previously recorded music.

“It seems like the music industry doesn’t distinguish between influence and actually stealing someone’s material,” he said. “Almost every pop artist has the same sound. It would practically be impossible to distinguish the songs without lyrics. They just all sound so similar.”

Time will tell whether cases like Thicke’s and Harrison’s will continue to be brought up in today’s music industry. But writers have blurred the line between influence and plagiarism to a point that it almost feels inevitable.

Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo | Daily Texan Staff

Music professor Bruce Pennycook was appointed late October to the new role of director of digital arts for the College of Fine Arts, and is in the midst of redesigning the college’s interdisciplinary programs and course offerings. 

Pennycook will oversee the college’s efforts to provide opportunities for interdisciplinary study and collaboration. New courses and facilities will integrate technology and art to create a range of possibilities for progress, including 3-D printing labs and advanced digital technologies that would allow choreographers to work with virtual dancers.

“Everywhere I look in the art world, I’m seeing new technologies changing how art forms are made, how they’re taught and how they’re viewed,” said Douglas Dempster, dean of the College of Fine Arts. “So why should we expect students to confine their studies within the conventional departmental boundaries?”

Pennycook was tapped for the position, in part, because of his experience as panel chairman of the Bridging Disciplines Program in digital arts and media — an interdisciplinary fine arts program that allows students take a mix of courses in computer science, fine arts and the humanities. Pennycook said the programs have provided an “ideal model” for interdisciplinary study and insights for the upcoming changes.

“UT is fairly unique in that we offer these robust interdisciplinary programs,” academic adviser Rose Mastrangelo said. “They provide a place for students with passions that are too broad to study through only one discipline.”

The changes will come at the expense of older art programs, said Dempster. A ceramics and metals workshop is being refurbished to make way for a new high-tech digital fabrication lab, and advanced metals courses are being dropped in favor of new offerings. The college also aims to construct a “creative commons” that provides students with audio and video editing technologies, among other resources. 

“I’m excited that the College of Fine Arts is going in a new direction that acknowledges the art of the time, but I’m also disappointed that they have to do it at the expense of traditional programs,” studio art freshman Connor Frew said. 

Dempster said his department is working to strike a balance between new and old artistic techniques that incorporates the insights of traditional techniques while creating an environment ideal for progress and innovation.

“I think our focus on the arts is often lost in a rush towards disciplines like science and business and engineering,” Dempster said. “This helps us stay on cutting edge in the arts and humanities.”