8 Songwriters on the Line Between Inspiration and Theft

To copy or not to copy, and how to do it without getting sued, has become an increasingly common question for songwriters in the studio, often interfering with the creative process. Is it ever worth it to borrow someone else’s work? And perhaps more importantly, is it worth how much it could cost? Multiple artists, from Bebe Rexha to Chuck D to Imogen Heap, spoke to us candidly about the lines, samples, rhythms, and melodies they’ve debated.

Bebe Rexha

Singer, songwriter for Rihanna, Eminem

I love Meredith Brooks, and I love the song “Bitch.” But when we did “I’m a Mess,” I didn’t go into the studio that day saying I wanted to do an interpolation of her record. I just wanted to know I wrote a song. After playing it for some people they were like, “Oh, this reminds me of [sings] ‘I’m a bitch, I’m a …’” So I decided to give [songwriters Brooks and Shelly Peiken] publishing [royalties] on it because I just didn’t want it being a situation. I did it right before the song was released. I’m, like, the most paranoid person. Any time somebody tells me something sounds similar, I freak out. I’ll get a musicologist or two on it. I ask 8,001 people. I think the “Blurred Lines” thing really scared the shit out of the songwriting and music community. But as long as you’re not trying to fuck people over, then you’re good. The second you try to play that game, you could win for a second, but most likely, you will get caught.

There’s a song on my new album that is literally a song from the past that we flipped. And I just know in my bones it will relate to people all around the world. Everybody I play it for they’re like, “Ah! It’s that song, oh my god.” They freak out about it. The inspiration behind it is so undeniable that I know it’s worth it to probably not get much publishing from it. I just love the song so much. Sometimes I tell artists and songwriters that are up-and-coming and upset [about losing money] — “Listen, I was the same way. It’s not called the music music, it’s called the music business.” If you were to take a hook, like I did with “The Way I Are” [which interpolates Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”], Whitney’s songwriters took 30 percent [publishing royalties] or something like that. That’s fair. But I’ve heard of situations where original songwriters will take an insane amount, or they could take a full 100 percent. And that’s kind of shitty, too. Some of my songs have been used as inspiration and I just never went to do anything about it because I don’t want the extra drama in my life. If something is a blatant copy where it’s too much, I would definitely go after it. But nothing has moved me in a way that has made me want to stop my whole world for that.

Chuck D

Rapper, songwriter

We used a lot of Parliament Funkadelic [a funk collective led by George Clinton] in our music, but then the owner of those particular songs came after Public Enemy. I always felt bad that uncle George felt bad about that. We’re DJs, man, we’re vinyl addicts. Every aspect of music I do involves samples. In the ’90s, we ended up doing things like “He Got Game” and had to get clearance with Stephen Stills to use the master and the ownership of that song [Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”]. They said, “Yeah, we’ll do it but we’re going to take 175 percent of the song rights.” If you wonder what 175 percent is, it means that on the album they take another 75 percent out of another song. It was clever — lawyers and publishers coming up with new rules — but we was all right with that. You win some, you lose some in this particular game. We knew we were doing some outlaw shit. Since you’re a gunslinger, you can’t start crying about getting shot.

With songwriting, there’s going to be some commonalities — it’s the same language. But that whole “they lifted it from this” is bullshit. Even though I’m good friends with the Marvin Gaye family — I understand them getting some money, and they should — I don’t hear that shit with Pharrell [on “Blurred Lines”]. I’m listening to two different fucking songs. There’s not a fairy tale behind every birth — these songs are born in a sonic bordello. In the birth of a lot of rap records, they might call these record sounds bastardized now, but there’s some brilliant life coming out of that. These areas stand out more because the record companies have collapsed. Publishing and licensing are standing out more these days because people realize it’s the last refuge where money is being made. Now, the currency is viewed in the streams, so a lot of these songs are running into each other because they’re all being streamed There’s a lot of fish in the river now.

NOVA Wav

Songwriting duo Denisia “Blu June” Andrews and Brittany “Chi” Coney, who create “vibes” for artists like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Ariana Grande

There was a song a couple years back for this artist at Atlantic that we wrote. It ended up not coming out due to sample clearance. I suggested using D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel” because I thought it would be crazy for the record. Everybody loved it. The label loved it. But we couldn’t clear it or agree on the publishing. I think they were asking for 80 to 90 percent royalties of the song. And it was just an ad-lib he did, not even a lyric! After that, we just try not to even play with samples. Even if we’re creating something and we’re like, “This would sound super dope,” we immediately think, but then it’s gonna be so much red tape. When we worked on the Teyana Taylor album, there was a lot of that. We got to see firsthand how that actually works, ’cause Kanye uses a lot of samples. Even doing songs and working the publishing out later, it’s like, okay, we had 50 percent of the song and now we have 40 or 15 or 4 percent because of the sample. But honestly, if it’s a Jay-Z and a Beyoncé record or Ariana Grande, I don’t care what I have to go through. Just having your name credited on a song could bring you so much more money than you would’ve made without it. As creators, our job is to create a vibe or a feeling. So if a sample is going to make that feeling, then let’s just pay the people for that feeling and make a great song.

There’s a very thin line between inspiration and stealing. As we get into rooms with different pop writers, there’s a lot of times where they take, not necessarily lyrics, but melodies from older songs and change the melody just slightly. You almost don’t even notice. You think, Oh my god, this melody is catchy. But no one knows it’s literally a Missy Elliott melody or Ciara’s “Goodies.” They pull up and say, “Hey, we wanna create this type of vibe, we wanna recreate Sade, or XYZ. Do you have anything?” We’ve only come across it maybe two or three times where it was super intentional — “let’s take this melody from blah blah blah and switch it” — so it’s not as frequent as you think, but it happens. And we always raise the questions: “Are you sure? Maybe we should change the melody.” At the end of the day, there are only 12 notes. Naturally, certain progressions are going to make you want to sing a certain way. Those melodies are probably in the back of your mind. But we’re open to giving people all the credit they deserve.

Allie X

Singer, songwriter

I thought the whistle in my song “Paper Love” might be stealing, but turns out I wasn’t. That happens — you sing something and you’re like, I’m sure this exists. I’m stealing, right? My song “Not So Bad in LA,” too. Everyone said it was a Lana Del Rey song, but I could never find a specific song. It just conjured up feelings of Lana Del Rey. It’s such a fine line, and such an interesting conversation, and it comes up in most sessions. Most sessions start with, “What are you listening to? What should we listen to that will then be used as our inspiration for what we’re going to write?” I don’t think it’s that dirty. The songs we’re referencing did the same thing. When the Beatles were reinventing music, they were copying blues musicians and Elvis. That’s how music works. You draw from other sources and you combine influences. But where do you draw the line? That’s where it gets interesting. I’ve heard songs that take the rhythm of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” but change the notes, so then it’s a different song. Or songs that takes the exact bass line and change the timing. Is that still a copy? I have definitely taken songs and written something fresh from them. Change notes, rhythms, and lyrics.

If the goal of a writing session is to make money and get a song on top-ten radio, then you wanna be listening to what’s on the radio and emulating that. That’s a big reason why radio music goes through these waves. When the Chainsmokers became popular all of a sudden, all the writers wanted those drops. Before that, they wanted the EDM drop. Before that, it was Max Martin and Dr. Luke’s super-compressed guitar sounds for Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson. When those became popular, there were a ton of rooms where people were listening saying, “Okay, how do we make something like this?” And taking elements. Copying is happening, but it’s never a complete rip-off, and there’s rules about this too, of course. Taking a chord progression, you can’t sue for that because in popular music — we repeat the same four-chord pattern constantly. Generally, people have the attitude of: If this melody is an issue, I’m gonna find out. Once I was in a workshop with Jim Vallance who wrote all the songs for Bryan Adams, including “Heaven.” He said, “You know what? I love when people copy my songs because then I get to approach them with my legal team and they don’t want it to be public, so they’ll buy me out or give me a percentage of the songs just to be quiet, and I’m gonna make money for sitting on my ass.” I’ve never considered myself to be original as a public figure, or a writer. I’m not precious about it. I am a product of my influences, and my influences are vast.

Imogen Heap

Singer, songwriter, producer

[Jason Derulo’s team] definitely asked in advance [about sampling “Hide and Seek” in “Whatcha Say”]. To be honest, I’m pretty sure they already mastered it, and it was already ready to go, and they were hoping everything would be okay in the end. And it was! Generally, my attitude towards sampling is, credit where credit’s due. It does irritate me if someone features
something of mine prominently and doesn’t credit me. Half the time people don’t credit someone because they’re terrified they’re going to take it down, and say, “No, no, you can’t use that,” when they’ve worked so hard on it. To me, when I heard it, I was like, “That’s really good.” I must have heard a hundred different versions of that song over the years, because it’s
just begging for a remix or reinterpretation.

We split the songwriting 50/50, so that’s not really the problem with the industry. People get miscredited all the time, and literally 50 percent of royalties don’t meet their intended party. I’m sure I’ve been miscredited loads of times, but the only one I’ve really noticed was when Ariana Grande covered a song of mine called “Goodnight and Go” and did a new verse, so the publishing splits were a little different (in my favor). I wasn’t credited on Spotify, and in the artwork I wasn’t credited as a songwriter, so loads of my fans were like, “How dare Ariana rip Imogen off!” but the truth is she got my 100 percent permission. I love her version and we’re doing our own little version on this tour, like a parody of a parody, or a cover of a cover. She was devastated and mortified that I didn’t get credited. It’s just another example of how the music industry really needs this missing layer: a data set of artists and songs that everyone can see transparently, so we can fix all the gaps of where these royalties are meant to go to.

Wyclef Jean

Rapper, songwriter, producer

The one that has been the most debatable as a producer has been Enya’s “Boadicea” for the Fugees’ “Ready or Not.” ’Cause when I was sampling Enya, she lived out of a castle in Europe. Nobody was sampling Enya. It was forbidden. She didn’t get no kind of clearance for her music. Literally, we got threatened. As a very eclectic producer, a lot of what I was listening to was coming out of Europe, so sometimes it took people a minute to hear where I was coming from. When I played the sample just by itself as a sample, without the breakbeat, it was just, “Where you going with this?” I was like, “Yo, trust me, when the breaks on it, it’s gonna sound crazy.” Probably a lot of it was just what was being sampled was funk music, and I took a whole ’nother route about it, so that got a lot of debate. Literally, we got threatened to pull everything from the album. She was like, “Remove everything from the shelf right now, or it’s not going to be good for you.” It was crazy because I didn’t even understand the knowledge of paying for a sample — keep in mind, we’re just young producers in the hood chopping stuff up. So then there had to be a conversation with Enya. We had to pay a fee, but she went with it.

I sampled a lot, because coming up, for me, that’s just part of our culture. Like you DJing, you always sampling. Now, for me to use a sample, it really it has to make total sense ’cause I’m on the other side of the fence. People are sampling my music. It’s so funny because DJ Khaled had to call me for “Wild Thoughts” and I was laughing in my head because I remember
having that conversation with Enya. The thing about copyright issues — you always gonna have that. Writers draw from other writers. But you still gotta be real conscious that you’re not jacking the shit. At the end of the day, I can get inspired by something, but it has to breed originality for me.

A Boogie wit da Hoodie

Rapper, singer, songwriter

I never really thought about doing a Michael Jackson sample — nobody does it. It’s like, Who’s gonna clear this? But then I thought I’d just try it for my song “Look Back at It.” At first, I thought the label wasn’t gonna get me anything for it. But I was willing to give all my publishing and royalties percentage of the song — that’s how determined I was to clear the song. It ended up being a real good deal in the end. The Jackson estate made it easy for me; they were the first people to clear “Remember the Time.” After I got that cleared, I went straight into the “You Rock My World” sample. I debated the one line where I said, “The way you walkin’, the way you talkin’, it’s all because of me.” I felt like that was too close to Michael’s words — he said, “The way I walk, the way I talk.” I changed one or two things. But if you notice, I didn’t really change the melody. I kept that same pitch — [sings] “the way you speak, it’s my melody / don’t you ever think it’s another me” — I’m just repeating his melody in my words. It took nine months to clear that song. I won’t say the number I paid to clear the samples, but it was fair. I don’t steal. I’m the type that knows how to give credit.

I’ve been in the studio with Young Thug. There’s a song I showed him where I said, “Look, I got this from your inspiration.” And that’s the part that people will respect. If you make a song that sounds like somebody in everybody’s head, and you’re like “but I don’t sound like him,” it’s like, what are you talking about? And it happens to everybody because you listen to music all day. I’ve made a melody that sounds like an old Beyoncé song and you just realize, “Oh shit. I can’t do that because I’ll have to pay for it.” You just scrap it.

Sam Martin

Singer, producer, songwriter

Bob Dylan’s team said they wanted 100 percent of a song because I had the same melody in the first phrase of the verse as his song “Masters of War.” I found out he took that melody from an old hymn from England — so why are they suing us for this? I just changed the melody, resubmitted, and they backed off. A lot of times, it’s not the artists themselves, but family members or lawyers [who come with a claim]. My friend Dr. Lawrence Ferrara is the god of musicologists. He did the “Stairway to Heaven” case. We’ve submitted songs to him, and he’ll say, “It sounds like this or that,” and I have to go back and do something else. I’ll change a chord but keep a melody just to get away from these possibilities that somebody might think it sounds similar and get greedy. He says that once you’ve got a claim or someone takes you to court, you’ve already lost because it’s such a hassle and you lose money. You don’t even want the possibility that someone would come for you. Take the Sam Smith case, “Stay With Me.” He used the Tom Petty melody unintentionally from “I Won’t Back Down.” They went to Petty and said, I didn’t mean to do this, but I took the melody. They gave Petty 25 percent and Sam won a Grammy. Great! It’s the lawyers and the family members who are irrational and who we’re protecting ourselves from.

Debates over song borrowing often revolve around one thing: Money.

According to a number of music-industry sources, here’s how much it can cost you.
By Steve Knopper

$500–$1,000

The cost to hire a musicologist in the case of a plagiarism/copying claim.

$15,000–$30,000

Insurance costs for artists to protect themselves annually against plagiarism charges. It’s a lot, but better than fighting a “Blurred Lines” battle.

$10,000–$250,000

The range of deductibles for such an insurance policy. “It’s all over the place — it depends on who it is, their history, how big their catalogue is,” says Peter Tempkins, managing director of entertainment for Nashville insurance company Hub International.

$5,000–$8,000

Typical attorney’s bill for fighting or negotiating a plagiarism charge out of court, although it can get out of hand and easily rise to $30,000.

$800,000

How much Led Zeppelin’s publishing company demanded in legal fees for defending the band against “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarism charges in court. (The judge denied the request.) Erica Rosa, director of royalties for a Nashville entertainment business management company, says it’s in line with a high-profile plagiarism case: “It wouldn’t surprise me to see legal bills in the six figures.”

$5 million

What Robin Thicke and Pharrell had to pay for being charged with plagiarizing Marvin Gaye in “Blurred Lines.” Courts give damages based on the value of the copied portion of the song — so a hit single that made $1 million and uses 10 percent of somebody else’s song might have to pay out $100,000. “There is no going rate,” says L.A. entertainment lawyer Gerald Sauer, although other attorneys say damages for less-successful songs range from $10,000 to $150,000.

$60,000

The budget to clear samples for a major hip-hop release. Or, as much as $100,000 for a superstar artist using high-cost samples (like the Beatles, say). “The budgets for sampling have increased dramatically,” says Deborah Mannis-Gardner, whose company DMG Clearances Inc., serves as the sample-clearing middleman between artists, labels, and publishers.

$2,500 plus 10 percent of a song’s publishing royalties

The typical sampling cost paid to songwriters. This can add up. Timmy Thomas, who wrote 1972’s “Why Can’t We Live Together,” wound up sampled in Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” which has sold more than 7 million copies in the U.S. alone, and that’s not even counting streaming.

$2,500 plus 2-4 percent of a song’s future sales

The typical sampling cost paid to the owner of a master recording (usually a record label). Just about every sampling artist pays such fees these days, but some indie labels that can’t afford to do so will release a song with no permission and risk a lawsuit.

$50-$2,500 plus 2-50 percent of an artist’s total song revenue

How much it costs through Tracklib, a source of sample material that contains 70,000 fully cleared tracks, which can often be a cheaper route. J. Cole’s “Middle Child,” for example, sampled First Choice’s R&B hit “Wake Up to Me” from this online library and, Mannis-Gardner says, wound up paying “almost nothing.” Of course, songs that use longer samples cost more — Tracklib charges 50 percent of future revenues for high-demand songs that contain 60 seconds of the original piece.

$2,500 to $15,000 plus 2–100 percent of publishing royalties

Cost of “interpolating,” or reinterpreting a melody for use in a new song. The cost depends on the duration of the melody, not who the source is. Last month, the New York Times reported that the company that owns Rodgers and Hammerstein’s catalogue were given 90 percent of royalties on Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings,” a song that interpolates “My Favorite Things.”

1 / 11

*A version of this article appears in the April 1, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Now!

More From This Series

Many musicians feel that the 2015 ruling, in which “Blurred Lines” writers Pharrell and Robin Thicke had to pay the estate of Marvin Gaye for infringement on the late singer’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up,” effectively extended copyright protection beyond melodies, harmonies, and lyrics into the more nebulous realm of grooves and overall sound. The practice of re-creating an existing melody, note for note, for an altogether new song. In 2001, the Bridgeport Music Group, owners of much of the George Clinton/Parliament-Funkadelic catalogue, sued more than 800 defendants for unauthorized sampling. Clinton was not a party to the suit; he himself sued Bridgeport multiple times. “We were the biggest nickers in town. Plagiarists extraordinaires,” Paul McCartney later admitted. Even the Beatles were sued for their blatant usage of Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” in their song “Come Together” but settled out of court with Berry’s publisher Morris Levy. “Goodnight N Go,” Grande’s version of Heap’s 2005 song, appeared on her 2018 album, Sweetener. Enya, who has been sampled many times over the years, has said that the forceful response was due to the fact that the Fugees had not approached her team for permission or given her credit for what turned out to be a major part of the song. In truth, Michael Jackson is one of the most sampled artists in popular music. The English medieval song “Nottamun Town” came to North America during the Colonial era. Dylan recorded the song after reportedly hearing it performed by the black Puerto Rican singer Jackie Washington, who had taken it from Appalachian folk legend Jean Ritchie. In 2015, Led Zeppelin was sued by a trustee for the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe for lifting a portion of the hit “Stairway to Heaven” from Spirit’s instrumental song “Taurus.” Although a jury ruled in Zeppelin’s favor, an appeals court last year ordered a new trial.