How to avoid a lawsuit when writing a song

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

By Lauren Turner
Medill Reports

Streaming platforms such as Spotify and SoundCloud make it easier to share and upload music –and to remix and sample it. Think about Doja Cat’s “Freak” (Paul Anka’s “Put Your Head on My Shoulder”), Miley Cyrus’ “Midnight Sky” (Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”) and Lil Uzi Vert’s “That Way” (Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way”). But these artists must be careful with copyright. Follow these tips from experts to avoid a messy musical lawsuit:

  1. Be aware of inspirations and influences

Songwriters should be honest with themselves about who they admire and what music they consume. For example, if you’re constantly listening to another singer or band, you may pick up on melodies or rhythms subconsciously. Make sure you aren’t accidently rewriting one of their tunes by listening to your song in comparison to theirs.

  1. ‘I wanna sound like that?’ NO, NO, NO!

Try to be original. “Now, that everything is electronic, it’s much easier to sound like what you hear,” said Loren Mulraine, a former DJ and musician, who is now an entertainment lawyer and professor at Belmont University. “You can program your keyboard to be perfect and program your drums to be perfect. So, it’s a lot easier now to sound like what you’ve already heard.” According to Music Business Worldwide, 60,000 new songs are uploaded onto Spotify each day. (That’s 22 million in a year and 1.4 every second!)

  1. Have someone you deeply trust listen to it 

Let other band members, family members or someone you closely trust listen to your song. They’ll be able to point out whether it sounds like something they’ve heard.

  1. Try different instruments

When Mulraine taught songwriting, he challenged his students to use an instrument they didn’t normally play. “You’re a guitar player? Try to write on keyboard,” he said. “You might only be able to bang the chords out, but it probably opens yourself up to more creative areas because you’re not falling into those same regular chords you play all the time.”

  1. Avoid simplicity

Musicians can only use so many notes or beats. Many famous pop songs use a four-chord progression, known as I, V, vi and IV, said Mark Avsec, a musician, songwriter and specialist in copyright infringement and a former member of Wild Cherry. He’s written, produced and performed on songs such as “She Don’t Know Me,” by Bon Jovi, and “Angel Love,” by Carlos Santana. Axis of Awesome, an Australian musical comedy act, made a parody that included popular hits that used these chords. When music (like pop) is intended to reach a vast audience, it can become difficult to expand your creativeness because you’re trying to keep it simple, Mulraine explained.

  1. Don’t edit as you go

Don’t edit your song while you write. “If you’re trying to edit it as you’re writing it, you’re more likely listening for something you’ve heard already,” Mulraine said. “Whereas, if you’re just creating and then after you’re done you say, ‘Wait a minute. Let me shift this around.’”

  1. Give credit where credit is due

If you suspect your music owes a debt to another song, give that artist credit. Better safe than sorry. After he was sued for “Shape of You” being too familiar to TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Ed Sheeran gave those songwriters credit. Sheeran won the lawsuit and even released a YouTube video talking about the case and similarity between pop songs. “Coincidence is bound to happen,” he said.

  1. Ask for permission

When it comes to sampling and remixing, artists must ask for permission from the original songwriters to make a derivative work, according to Section 106 of the Copyright Act. The original songwriters can grant permission to use their song. A great example is Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings.” Ninety percent of the royalties go toward Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, songwriters of “My Favorite Things,” from “The Sound of Music,” The New York Times reported. Since Grande signed away the royalties, she profits off performing and streaming rights.

  1. Don’t make a hit

“It only becomes a problem if you have a hit,” Mulraine said. “People don’t come after you unless you’re successful.” That draws attention to the work. “The best way to avoid a lawsuit about a song is to not have a hit,” said Mark Goldstein, former senior vice president of business and legal affairs at Warner Bros Records Inc., and now a professor at University of Southern California along with working as a consultant in the entertainment industry. “The moment that your song blows up, whether on TikTok or whether because it’s getting lots of streams on Spotify or you’re selling CDs or you’re getting downloads, then the crazy letters come out of the woodwork. None of that happens unless you’re successful.”

Lauren Turner is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Lauren_N_Turner.