I read an interesting tale of the music business recently, in which an Edmonton music student and songwriter, Connor Shaw, claimed that a song he wrote was the basis for a current number one song by country artist Jason Aldean, for which Shaw has received no credit, royalties or even a fruit basket. The Aldean song in question was written by three Nashville writers, two of whom are members of Florida Georgia Line. Shaw makes the claim based on the fact that the musical hook and title and hook lyrics are identical to his song written three years prior. You Make it Easy is the title of Aldean’s hit; Shaw’s is called Easy, but both choruses open up with “You make it easy . . .” to the same melody, and there are some other lyrical similarities throughout the song.
I’m not an expert in the specifics of the law in this area, but his story sounds convincing, whether or not his case would stand up in court. Another argument could be made, though, that country songs of 2018 are really supposed to sound like other current country songs you’ve heard (possibly on the same station in the last five minutes) making song plagiarism kind of a grey area.
Songwriter 1: “Hey y’all, this song we just wrote, Very Big Truck, sounds almost identical to that other song Really Big Truck, don’t you think?”
Songwriter 2: “You’re right. That’s perfect. I think our work is done here today.
Songwriter 3: “Yeah.” (that’s all he’s said all session, and he’ll be getting 33.3 %).
However, before we all get on our high horse about “New Country,” and how—putting it as kindly as possible—shallow and monotonous it is, it’s worth noting that we’ve had our plagiarism issues in bluegrass, too.
I recently got a sneak peak at some of the materials that will be part of the International Bluegrass Music Museum’s new exhibit, “Bluegrass in Court,” thanks to the exhibit’s curator, Brenda Wortsinn, and I found these fascinating “cease and desist” letters I never knew existed:
Letter to the writer of Down in the Willow Garden from the lawyer representing the writer of The Knoxville Girl:
July 12th 1881:
The song, which you claim to have written, and have chosen to call Down in the Willow Garden has recently become popular in our area, and I happened to hear this “song” of yours on several occasions in the last month, and hereby allege that it was stolen from my client, Rufus Mangrum, the sole writer of the popular ballad The Knoxville Girl, on which your so-called “composition” was based.
Please note the following glaring similarities in both songs:
Both have similar meter, and both are played in a sprightly 3/4 or waltz time. Both involve the drowning of a girl in a river for reasons not specifically stated. Both songs close with a confession of the crime.
Yours: “For I did murder that dear little girl whose name was Rose Conley”
Mine: “Because I murdered that Knoxville girl, the girl I loved so well”
Coincidence? I hardly think so.
We are willing to concede the following differences, which we believe to have been added by you to distract from the blatant nature of your theft:
The melody is not identical.
You also name your victim, whereas my client’s victim is anonymous, aside from knowing her home town.
The culprit in your song goes beyond beating and drowning, to include poisoning and stabbing. This is certainly overkill and, I have to say, in questionable taste.
In my client’s song, the murderer (“Willie”) feels remorse, manifesting itself in a headache and difficulty sleeping. Yours apparently considers cold-blooded killing something to be taken in stride.
For the reasons stated above, we are willing to settle for only a 50% share of all future royalties from commercial recordings, airplay, downloads, and streaming, once all of those things have been invented. in the meantime, a check for $35.00 should cover it. If you are unwilling to settle, we will be more than happy to have this decided in a court of law.
Thank you for your time.
In addition to this letter, there was this surprising communication from a lawyer representing Flatt & Scruggs, alleging that a song was stolen by his own clients:
September 14th, 1952
Dear Mr. Flatt,
I represent Columbia recording artists Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who in 1949, released a song they had written called My Cabin in Caroline. You can imagine my surprise when earlier this year, as I was listening to WSM radio while driving in Nashville, I heard what I thought was the exact same song credited to you. That’s when I was told by the announcer that the song I had just heard was called I’m Gonna Settle Down by Flatt & Scruggs. I was more than a little confused until the gravity of the theft that had taken place dawned on me.
For better comparison, I purchased your record and found that the melody was, in fact, virtually identical to my clients’, even including the following striking lyric similarities:
“My Cabin in Caroline”: “Someday she’ll be my wife and we’ll live a happy life”
“I’m Gonna Settle Down”: “I know she’ll be my wife and we’ll settle down for life”
“My Cabin in Caroline”: “I’m packing my grip for that long long trip”
“I’m Gonna Settle Down”: “I’m gonna pack up my grip and take a long long trip”
On behalf of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, I hereby demand that you and Mr. Scruggs cease performing this song, that Columbia Records stop all sales of the record, and that radio stations discontinue playing the song until we can come to an agreement on a royalty-sharing and compensation plan, or until such time as this matter can be settled in court.
For now, may I suggest you avoid “packing up your grip for any long long trip” any time soon (did you really think no one would notice that one?).
Attorney at Law