June 19, 2024 Musicology No Comments

I happened upon this copyright infringement accusation today and thought, “It’s a lovely day, I’m in a great mood (oddly enough). Sure, I’ll check it out.

Glad I did.

It turns out the allegedly infringing song has been number one on Ghana’s Apple Music chart for weeks. It’s huge. It has millions of views across YouTube and TikTok, which is especially interesting since it’s a Christian Gospel song. The singer, co-writer, and minster (I think I’ve got that right) Naana Asiedu is a star. Somebody should be throwing money at this woman. And who doesn’t love choirs?! Give this drummer a raise right now! I’ve listened to this thing five or six times already. No, ten. At least ten.

First note, probably couldn’t hear the music, let that go. 🙂 She warms up real quick.


As for the claims, as they say, “Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.” But I’ll take this opportunity to make an important point, one I’ve made before — these sorts of issues can arise among sincere, right-minded, and well-intentioned parties who happen to see a set of circumstances differently.

Producer Mickey Kwame thinks Team Eternity’s banger sounds too much like his fifteen-year-old, pretty well-known Christian song, also titled “Defe Defe,” composed by Osuani Afrifa and performed by the Helleluyah Voices. Although he didn’t write it, Mr. Kwame presumably owns some of the rights, possibly through Kaakyire Music Productions.

Here’s their “Defe Defe.”

It’s fairly obvious we’re here mostly because the phrase “Defe Defe” appears and is important enough in both works to be their titles.

As is so often the case, the better way to approach this is not whether or not there are similarities, but whether the similar elements are original to and protectable by the copyright holders.

“Defe Defe,” which translates to English as “defeated, beaten down, crushed, or shattered,” as a two-word phrase would not be protectable. Ccpyright generally does not protect short phrases and titles.

There’s another phrase in there, Bassa Bassa, or Pasa Pasa, that’s sung along with or immediately following Defe Defe, as though agreeing with or reemphasizing Defe Defe. Here, I might seek the counsel of a language specialist for nuance but with the suspicion that we’d still be looking at common juxtapositions of words that might be similar in meaning.

And there’s a longer phrase… “Manhyia Nyame anka, y’ayÉ› me” that precedes “Defe Defe”… I think the whole phrase means “if I didn’t know God, I’d be defeated,” largely the same as the older song’s “Manhyia Nyame a anka É”bonsam ayÉ› me defe defe,” where “bonsam” evidently represents the devil or evil. So it becomes, “if I didn’t know God, the devil would defeat me.” I’m using translator tools which may not be on the money.

This longer phrase might point more directly to Kwame’s song. What I’ve gathered thus far is that it’s not an especially original phrase, and therefore not very protectable. From there, any significant differences quickly erode the claim. A forensic musicologist, when dealing with minimally protectable elements (like short or somewhat common ones) considers things in the context of “thin copyright,” which requires in some cases “virtual identity” but certainly a higher bar to support a claim. The phrases here are NOT identical, and there are no musicologically significant similarities in the melody, rhythm, or harmony. And there are numerous noteworthy differences.

Reporting misapplies the terms “sample” and “interpolation” as is so often the case. This is not a sample. No audio from an older work was used in the newer one. And it should NOT necessarily be considered an interpolation. That’s begging and assumes the dominion of the phrase in the first place, very much a question at hand. Unless the phrase points more precisely to Kwame’s “Defe Defe” as, say, “helter-skelter in summer swelter” points to American Pie, it would certainly not rise to the level of substantial similarity without musical similarity.

In Kwame’s “Defe Defe,” the phrase appears in a few ways, with slightly different rhythms, and on different pitches. But importantly, it’s barely a melody. The lyric “Defe Defe” is sung on a single pitch, and then in some cases, repeated on another pitch. Sometimes it’s simply four eighth notes, placed on beat one. Other times, it’s “Defe Defe Defe,” three times, and across six eighth notes. It also appears as “Defe,” two eighths on the first beat, then an eighth note rest, and then a second “Defe” on a pair of eighths. We have compounding paucity.

Since the rhythm and rhythmic placement of just the “defe defe’s” in both works are a bit more similar, let’s look at that another way. It’s fairly implausible that such a short phrase is protectable; moreso because it’s hardly a melody — the word “defe” is set to only one note across the phrase; and it’s even more implausible that a short phrase on one pitch set to only straightforward, basic, and brief rhythms should be monopolized by whoever got there first. That’s not at all how copyright works.

In terms of accompanying harmony, the entirety of Kwame’s “Defe Defe” is two measures of D minor followed by two measures on C major. The whole song goes back and forth between those two chords. And the lyric “Defe” appears mostly as a series of D’s. Sometimes as a harmony between singers as G and C atop the C major measures.

There’s nothing wrong with simplicity, but it doesn’t readily lend itself to conspicuous similarity. Each four-syllable “Defe Defe” sung to a single pitch is either D’s over “vi chords” or G’s and C’s over a “V chord.” You needn’t even know what the roman numerals mean. And perhaps I’ll jot down the sheet music later.

Naana Asiedu’s “Defe Defe” happens to be in the key of Eb, but for the sake of simpler comparison I’ll describe it as though in F. (Musicologists transpose songs into like keys as a matter of course.)

The chorus in Defe Defe’s is a little more complex, but not very.

|| Dm | F | C | Bb ||

The “Defe Defe’s” appear in the third and fourth measures. The rhythm is different from any of those in Kwame’s “Defe Defe.” It’s fourth sixteenths on beat one, followed by an eighth rest, and then “defe defe” again on four more sixteenth. We can quibble about the tempo of this song, whether I should count those “defe’s” as eights or sixteenth, but none of that will make them the same.

It happens in music that countless songs involve common themes, stories, and depictions, and copyright law is thoughtful about where to draw the line. Copyright recognizes that among common ideas, there are only so many ways to express them, and while these expressions may on the whole be protectable by copyright, the sub-elements that make up the shared vocabulary are often not. If we want more love songs, or for that matter greeting cards, copyright can’t allow anyone to monopolize the clichés, the “I don’t always tell you how much I appreciate…”

Actually, I don’t want more greeting cards, but you get the point.

Mickey Kwame believes he was entitled to some recognition and Team Eternity should’ve asked for permission. I would imagine Team Eternity either never gave his “Defe Defe” a thought, or if they did, calculated that it was an available and unprotectable inspiration.

Written by Brian McBrearty