Oren Bracha

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.

Three previously unpublished short stories by author J.D. Salinger surfaced on the Internet Thanksgiving day after an unauthorized duplication of the works were uploaded to file-sharing sites including Imgur and MediaFire.

Someone — who has not yet been identified — duplicated Salinger’s short stories “Birthday Boy” and “Paula,” which were accessed from the Harry Ransom Center’s reading room, and “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” which resides at Princeton University. 

The mysterious uploader violated copyright laws, as well as the wishes of the now-deceased author when bounding the duplicated works together and selling them on eBay.

Links to file-sharing websites hosting the three unauthorized works appeared on numerous threads on Reddit, a social content gathering site. The files have since been removed. 

Salinger, the notoriously reclusive author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” had wished the short stories remain unpublished up until 2060.

Stephen Enniss, director of the Ransom Center, said it is important not to confuse privacy with copyright. 

“While we go to great lengths to protect the privacy of living figures, it is difficult to know the wishes of the dead,” Enniss said. “As a research institution, it is important that we be attentive as well to the needs of students and scholars engaged in academic study and in the production of new scholarship.”

Manuscripts of both “Birthday Boy” and “Paula,” remain available in the Ransom Center both to view and copy for research purposes.  

“Our research libraries are filled with unpublished materials that remain in copyright, and researchers visit our reading rooms daily to consult primary source materials that are not yet available in print,” Enniss said.

Law professor Oren Bracha said the center did not violate any laws regarding intellectual property because there was no outright encouragement to duplicate the works. 

“If you go to a public library and there’s a photocopier on the premises, and you photocopy a whole book, the library, specifically under the Copyright Act, is not liable for that,” Bracha said. “Now if they encourage people to make copies and help them specifically to engage in infringing activities, that’s something else. But just by virtue of not monitoring people who use their equipment on the site to make copies, even infringing copies, that doesn’t make the library liable.” 

Enniss said the Ransom Center has a responsibility to inform researchers of the copyright status of collections of authors’ work.  

“The Ransom Center’s responsibility is to inform researchers of the copyright status of works in the collection — as we do through our policies and through the database we maintain of writers, artists and their copyright holders — and to make sure we have assurances that any copies are being supplied for research only,” Enniss said. “We have done so.”

Melody Valadez, physics junior and author of young adult suspense novel, “Those Who Trespass,” said unpublished works being available for research purposes are helpful to other writers. 

“As another writer, you can go and see their entire process and how much work they’ve put into it before the final product that you [see],” Valadez said. “And that’s helpful.” 

Valadez said she can fathom Salinger’s hesitation toward allowing the public to view his earlier work. 

“I can understand not wanting anyone to ever see early drafts because they’re usually pretty terrible,” Valadez said. “I think authors are usually scared of being judged by their drafts when they’re very aware of the problems they already have.”

Valadez said she believes the manuscripts help the reader better understand the author.

“To me, it’s the same as being able to read letters of famous authors or famous mathematicians or famous historians because you get to look at the things going on around why they did what they did,” Valadez said. “You get a broader perspective on the final product.”

English professor Janine Barchas said she believes material an author may deem private has the potential to expand public knowledge about the author’s history, comparing the Salinger manuscripts to the hundreds of Jane Austen letters burned by her sister Cassandra.

“Thanks to Cassandra’s censorship, we will never know what Jane wrote that was so ‘scandalous’ that it deserved the flame,” Barchas said. “Times and opinions change. Together, scholars and caretakers should always try to take the long view. Content that may seem “inappropriate” or “too private” today may prove benign — or even central — with a little time.” 

Enniss said he was unaware of the Ransom Center dealing with similar incidents of copyright infringement in the past, but said the center follows standard professional practices of similar research libraries around the country.

“As the center’s materials use policy expresses it, the aim of these policies is to balance the needs of patrons, the exclusive right of the copyright holder and the center’s own rights and responsibilities toward its collections,” Enniss said.

Bracha said copyright infringement is a little more complicated in the case of companies such as Imgur or MediaFire. 

“The moment they either get a notice from the copyright owner or otherwise acquire specific knowledge that there’s some infringing activity going on and that they facilitated it, they have to do something about it or at which point they do risk legal liability,” Bracha said.

Enniss said the copyright infringement occurring in the Salinger case is currently a matter between the Salinger Estate and the individual responsible for uploading the unauthorized duplications to file-sharing sites.