June 1, 2021 Musicology No Comments

This is an actual email I received from an artist scared to put their own work out into the world for fear it would be copied, plagiarized, infringed upon, otherwise ripped off:

“I’m a producer and songwriter. I’d love to show my stuff to producers and artists, but I’m afraid they’ll steal it. Should I send it anyway?”

With all the infringement cases in the news, I get it. Yes, there’s always going to be some risk, but is it significant? Just leaving the house carries with it “some” risk; nothing ventured, nothing gained. It’d be a shame if we didn’t get to pursue our dreams because we’re afraid someone’s going to commit a crime. Infringement is a crime, and crimes aren’t allowed, so we’re not helpless and we shouldn’t have to compromise or capitulate to such a fear. Especially if it’s overblown.

So I thought I’d make a quick post on the matter rather than just respond to the email. The question comes in different forms, but it gets asked enough. And sadly, lots of cases do roll in where some basic advice like this would’ve been invaluable. I have, many times, had to say something like, “I’m sorry but there may not be much you can do. You have only your story about how you sent in an mp3, or played your song in front of a lot of people, and someone went and made a hit record that sounds just like it.”

So to “I’m afraid someone will steal my song,” this is my basic advice.

While plagiarism comes in lots of flavors — intentional, unintentional, careless, indifferent, oblivious, stupid, et cetera, proving that it occurred is pretty much the same across all of them.

And it goes a little something like this: 

  1. Here’s my work.
  2. Here’s how I can demonstrate that I created it and committed it to fixed form on this date, which is prior to the date that they created theirs.  
  3. Here’s theirs, significantly the same as mine.
  4. Here’s how they heard mine before they made theirs.

To most inquiries, my very first steps are centered around, “Can you show those four things?”

So to the nice person who wrote to say they’re reluctant to put their work out, I would recommend going bravely forth, but conduct yourself in such a way that you would always be able to demonstrate that your work is your work. Having your project files is good. A published youtube video, Apple Music, Spotify, or some other timestamped internet publishing is also good. And copyright registration is both good and if you want to file a lawsuit, necessary.

And I’m not going to get into the likelihood of it happening, because fear is unpleasant and I can’t tell you theft doesn’t happen. But if it happens, you’ll have some recourse if you have those things. Cross that bridge when you come to it. In the meantime, do your thing.

Written by Brian McBrearty