Plagiarism in music

Last week I read an LA Times article about allegations of plagiarism leveled at Olivia Rodrigo. Rodrigo is a very talented artist (“good 4 u” gets stuck in my head for days at a time), but is she a thief? I haven’t heard the songs mentioned in the article, so I can’t say in this specific case.

But in the general sense, my bar for “plagiarism” in music is pretty high. The entirety of popular music is based on artists incorporating things they’ve heard before to varying degrees. Rob Paravonian’s Pachelbel rant is a great demonstration. I’ll grant that “Canon in D” has long entered the public domain. But imagine if musicians had to wait a century to reuse a few bars of music.

My personal view—which may or may not match copyright law—is that unless it’s taking audience from the previous song/artist, it’s fine. This is similar to one of the factors in fair use. As a concrete example, Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” definitely takes from Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”. And that’s fine. The existence of “Ice, Ice Baby” hasn’t stopped anyone from listening to “Under Pressure”.

Cultural works, particularly in music and Internet discourse, rely inextricably on remixing. We should embrace a very permissive paradigm.