Recently Katy Perry was sued by the Christian rapper Flame about, of all things, a synthesizer riff in the song Dark Horse (2014). The accusation was that that synth riff was stolen from the song Joyful Noise (2008). While there were several irregularities in the proceedings, Katy Perry was found to be guilty of this plagiarism.
Note that this was not the melody, nor was it even in the foreground, but in the background of Dark Horse. Musically it is referred to as an ostinato, or an element to support the melody. Otherwise the songs did not share the same melody, chord progression or drum rhythm.
If you are interested in the whole discussion, you can see it in a short 9 minute video by Adam Neely on Youtube here:
If songwriters are able to copyright short sequences of notes, then we have a big problem. There are only so many keys and so many notes and only so many ways to combine them.
This was the situation that caused another lawyer, Damien Riehl, to ally with a programmer by the name of Noah Rubin to do the unthinkable. They created a program that would generate every possible melody. Once generated, the melodies occupied 2.6 TB of drive space. By copyright law, once those melodies were ‘afixed’ to a physical medium (the hard drive), they are copyrighted.
Adam Neely (again) interviewed the two in a Youtube video here:
Then the duo also did one more unthinkable thing, they made the file available to everyone. If you have 2.6 TB of free drive space and plenty of time to wait, you can get the file here:
Why did they do that? By putting all the music in public domain, now anybody who writes a song has to prove, in a court of law, that they did not have exposure to this file. Pretty difficult to prove a negative. In short, these two have thrown a monkey wrench into the copyright works to show the problems with the current situation with music. In essence, music is demonstrated to be just math with a limited number of possibilities. So, similarities may not be plagiarism but merely the result of the limited mathematical equations that the artist has to work with.
Damien Riehl originally revealed their feat in a TED talk called ‘Copyrighting all the melodies to avoid accidental infringement’. You can find it here: