By ProgBlog, Apr 17 2017 09:20AM
The scourge of anyone writing an essay is the charge of plagiarism and though I may have put personal academic involvement behind me, in a career that began pre-PC when my undergraduate essays were hand-written, I retain a professional training role and have a duty to check the work of a couple of my colleagues. The easiest way to avoid accusations of cheating is to use multiple sources, fully reference your work and include a comparative analysis as a summary to indicate your understanding of the subject. There are no shortcuts to essay writing when there is a multitude of plagiarism-checking software, free on the web, for use by both markers and students.
As an experiment, I ran the first 100 words of this article through Quetext which suggested I may have copied the sentence “The easiest way to avoid accusations of cheating is to use multiple sources, fully reference your work and include a comparative analysis as a summary to indicate your understanding of the subject” from a Wikipedia article on Fair Use! It may sound paranoid but I’ve written blogs and reviews on subjects that subsequently appear in Prog magazine where my phrasing and ideas, which I believe are characteristic of my personal style, have been included. There’s actually a rational explanation for this phenomenon: I mostly write about contemporary events, about artists touring or releasing material or appearing in the news for another reason, such as the support of Pink Floyd for the ‘Women’s boat to Gaza’; I’m writing about progressive rock so it’s likely to be something experienced by a fairly limited number of people who have similar expectations; our commentary will be largely based on audible and visual observations, though these may be perceived differently.
The feeling that just when you think you’ve come up with a great idea, somebody comes along and steals it took a further twist this week, following an article in the main section of The Guardian reporting that Ed Sheeran had settled out-of-court for $20 million after a plagiarism claim. My colleagues tend to tune into the radio at work, playing nothing that interests me and some things which really infuriate me (Sigala’s Sweet Lovin’, for example, which has undergone subtle mutations and is still being played as though it’s a current hit even though it originally came out in December 2015.) To my ears, a large number of pop songs are indistinguishable and this lack of musical diversity in pop music in general is a result of commoditisation, manufacturing and packaging which stifles creativity. The potential ground for borrowing the work of other song writers, particularly within dance music, gave me an idea for a blog and I emailed myself a few ideas and a rudimentary plan so I wouldn’t forget. Imagine my dismay when I opened G2 on Friday, with a front page headline “Has pop run out of tunes?” and a lengthy article inside the supplement by Peter Robinson The songs remain the same, dealing with the complexity of copying and plagiary.
The first time I noticed an obvious similarity between songs was not long after I’d seriously started to listen to music. Block Buster! by The Sweet (written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman) was released in January 1973 and I thought that the main riff was heavily derivative of David Bowie’s The Jean Genie, released a couple of months before in November 1972; with fairly good reason, It transpires that the Jean Genie riff has itself been compared to The Yardbirds’ cover of Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man.
The mixture of influences on progressive rock make it an ideal genre to scour for appropriation, though in its nascent form the influences were far less likely to be other rock bands than from the jazz and classical worlds. Rondo on the debut album by The Nice, The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack was a reworking of Dave Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk but, according to Martyn Hanson in Hang on to a Dream – The Story of The Nice, Immediate Records boss Andrew Oldham somehow managed to credit the band with the composition, but never explained how. The main difference between the two pieces was Brubeck had composed the piece in 9/8 time but the Nice played it in 4/4 but when I first heard the Nice version in 1972 or 1973, it was instantly obvious that they had lifted, wholesale, Brubeck’s piece. According to Hanson, the band had never considered claiming composition responsibility. Whether through naivety or by design, Keith Emerson would go on to have further issues with the lack of credit for other composers when he started ELP.
Peter Robinson’s G2 article touches on the legal arguments used to define plagiarism and it seems likely that a plaintiff will lose their case if they themselves have borrowed from a source that is out of copyright. This means that Emerson didn’t have to credit JS Bach for The Three Fates (on the first ELP album) even though he’d previously name-checked Bach, and other composers, on various Nice albums. When I eventually got around to buying Passio Secundum Mattheum by progressivo italiano band Latte e Miele and listened to the track Il Calvario it sounded like a note-for-note rendition of Emerson’s Clotho, indicating the original source.
Surprisingly enough, the next instance where I detected what I thought was undue influence was listening to Relayer at 12’47” into The Gates of Delirium, at the moment the battle sequence commences to resolve. At this point Patrick Moraz plays a lead synthesizer line that I thought was straight out of a Beatles song book but, when put into context where there’s so much going on in the Yes song, it’s obviously not The Beatles. At the time I was becoming aware of the spread of influence of the Fab Four and it didn’t seem such a ridiculous notion.
Robert Fripp famously made an out-of-court settlement over a plagiarism dispute with the producers of soft-core porn film Emmanuelle for misappropriation of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (part II). There are at least three short pieces of music credited to Pierre Bachelet and Herve Roy that occur in the film, which are remarkably close to Fripp’s instrumental piece. A more recent example of possible copying a King Crimson song is on Astra’s 2009 release The Weirding, where the title track comes close to quoting from Cirkus on Lizard. Of course this may be accidental, but it’s evident the band are inspired by early Crimson because apart from the use of doom-laden Mellotron there is a great deal of Sinfield-like imagery in the lyrics: ‘All the blind sight kills the white light / Fire blood raven screams / Spreading influence through waking dreams / The world spins out of tune / And there's nothing we can do...’ and again: ‘Blindly follow twisted tales / It seems forever without fail / Cat's paws mind their fairy stories dear’. Kanye obviously got around any potential problem by including the appropriate credits to his song Power, which sampled 21st Century Schizoid Man.
The distinction between copying and source of inspiration may appear to be a grey area but, as Robinson points out, you can apply maths to the problem. In this way, based on pitch, rhythmic placement and harmonic context, you can make a statistical judgement whether two pieces of music are similar. The chances of two songs, independently written and sharing an identical 39-note sequence backed by similar chords and with the same rhythmic accentuation is really remote; this was the case with Sheeran’s Photograph and Amazing by Matt Cardle. Inspiration is something entirely different. Marillion used to be labelled a Genesis-clone and though the original members will no doubt admit that their music was informed by Genesis, and (ex-) vocalist Fish used to apply grease paint and, to a lesser extent don costumes for his adopted persona in the manner of Peter Gabriel, the similarity remained superficial. I’m more interested in Fish’s lyrics because he’s spoken of Peter Hammill as being one of the musicians who influenced him. Hammill recorded Flight from A Black Box in 1980 which includes the lines: ‘The lines on the road trail the arrow in the sky/ I search for the mote in my brother’s eye’ and four years later Fish penned the words to Incubus ‘You played this scene before, you played this scene before / I the mote in your eye, I the mote in your eye’. These are the only two lyrical references to a mote in an eye that I can think of but that doesn’t mean that Fish has copied Hammill.
There appear to be more cases of alleged plagiarism going to court than ever before, something I think is a reflection on the current state of the music business. I genuinely find it difficult to distinguish between many of the songs played on daytime radio, and find it even harder to like any of them. The idea of the music star and celebrity means that a record company has to invest in protecting the image of artists and the sum of $20m (£16m) was obviously worth it to Warner to ensure that Sheeran’s reputation and artistic integrity wasn’t too badly affected by alleged copying – unless the money came out of his own pocket. Such ridiculous sums of money spawn a culture of claims and that can’t be good for music, as money is diverted into the legal aspects of the industry rather than nurturing creativity. On the other hand, if it means we get less manufactured music, which stands more chance of accusations of copying, then that would be a great deal better.
There’s only one sure-fire way to avoid accusations of copying: cite your references.
Peter Robinson’s article appears here: