In the past few years, as music-copyright claims have skyrocketed, more and more artists are giving songwriting credits away. Frequently, they’re given retroactively to avoid costly trials, as when Sam Smith gave a piece of “Stay With Me” to Tom Petty after clearly drawing from Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” (Smith said the songs’ similarities were a “coincidence” after he settled with Petty.) On the rare occasions these cases do go to court, they’re joining increasingly crowded dockets. The 2010s saw 190 public music-copyright lawsuits, more than four times as many as in the early aughts, according to the law schools at George Washington University and Columbia University.
Historically, courts have extended copyright only to unique combinations of words and music, not to rhythms, chords, or instruments. But recent cases now have artists fearing that a bad court outcome could lead to the copyrighting of a song’s mere “vibe,” making it more difficult to channel the work that inspires them.
When Olivia Rodrigo shared songwriting credits on her hit 2021 album, Sour, with Taylor Swift, listeners began noting some of Rodrigo’s other influences on social media. Soon, viral TikTok videos were holding up Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” next to Paramore’s “Misery Business,” which shares with it a common chord progression and vibe. Though Rodrigo’s label had been in touch with Paramore’s prior to the her song’s release, Rodrigo ended up handing songwriting credits to Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Josh Farro following the online campaign.
This week, we are airing the conversation Switched On Pop’s Charlie Harding had on the Decoder podcast with host and The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel. Together, we tried to understand how the byzantine music-copyright system works and how its rules affect the sound of pop music today and in the future.