A quick look at the lawsuit alleging that Roddy Ricch lifted his #1 hit, “The Box” from Greg Perry’s “Come On Down.” What’s it really about? And does it look like a strong case?
The super short version? The foremost point of interest seems to be the minor scale glissando that appears at the beginning of both tracks, as the complaint reads:
“Expert musicology analysis confirms that the ascending minor scale played by violin at the opening of COME ON DOWN is a distinctive musical element which recurs a total of 6 times throughout the song.”Complaint. Case 1:22-cv-10316.
The glissando that Ricch used in “The Box” though is from a sound library that’s available to all for about $70. It appears in other works as well. So, first, it wasn’t sampled, but Perry never said it was. This is not a sampling case. Ricch is being sued over the compositional elements of the work. But the compositional element the complaint points to is a common off-the-shelf musical device. Glissandos, by the way, are blurry slides up or down between two notes. The notes you blur through define the gliss. This particular one is a one-octave ascending Bb minor scale ending on Bb. But scales are not protected by copyright. And that’s pretty much that.
The Long Version
How can there be a long version? Isn’t that it?
Even if I don’t agree with the thinking, I think I can surmise what’s coming. So here’s the long version.
Billboard, and others reported today that Roddy Ricch was sued in a complaint filed yesterday because Greg Perry, a recording artist and songwriter from the ’70s thinks his track “Come On Down,” might be infringed upon by Ricch’s #1 hit, “The Box.”
“Come On Down,” which was released on Casablanca Records and, according to the complaint, reached “#24 on the R&B Charts.” And according to WhoSampled.com, elements from “Come On Down” have been sampled for at least ten tracks, including “Wordplay” by Jeezy and “I Remember” by Jo Gotti (Feat DJ Kahlid), both of which the complaint mentions repeatedly.
This, however is not a case involving sampling. Sampling is the use of an audio recording. In this case, Perry is suing over the unauthorized use of the musical composition. Specifically, the complaint says.
Comparative analysis of the beat, lyrics, hook, rhythmic structure, metrical placement, and narrative context by a musicology expert demonstrates clearly and convincingly that THE BOX is an unauthorized duplication and infringement of certain elements of COME ON DOWN.Complaint. Case 1:22-cv-10316.
Right off the bat, beat, rhythmic structure, metrical placement, and narrative context are not an especially great foundation for probative similarity. And while they list “lyrics” as an area of similarity, they later note “narrative context,” which sounds to me like it’s bound to describe an idea more than an expression. And ideas aren’t protected by copyright. Later in the complaint, though, they assert “substantial similarities in melody, form, structure, and function.” So let’s quickly look.
We always describe copyright infringement as a bit of a three-legged stool, where the first leg is “Access,” by which in this case we mean, did Roddy Ricch have access to “Come On Down?” And certainly, it’s not unreasonable to imagine he did. It charted in its day. It’s been sampled for major records like Wordplay which has been seen almost a million times on YouTube, and Jeezy has 1.8 million followers. Maybe Roddy Ricch knows “Come On Down,” and maybe he doesn’t, but the track is out there. He certainly could’ve heard it before he wrote “The Box.”
The other two “legs” are the similarity and originality of the music. We ask, does ‘The Box” contain elements of “Come On Down” that qualitatively and quantitatively lead us to think Roddy Ricch copied them from “Come On Down?” (In my opinion, no.) And relatedly, are those elements unique enough to “Come On Down” that Greg Perry gets to protect them through copyright? (Again, in my opinion no.)
For a musicologist, the questions around similarity, originality, and access are both separate questions and interrelated ones. Roddy Ricch might say he’s never even heard “Come On Down,” but a lot of similarity in the works could lead us to infer that the similarity could not have occurred otherwise; the defendant must’ve heard it, even if they’ve forgotten. It can be a bit circular as well. If the element of similarity is not original to the plaintiff’s work then the defendant could’ve heard it anywhere. We can’t argue both, “He copied it because he heard it, and he must’ve heard it because he copied it.”
There seem to be just a couple of areas of focus, and I’m going to paraphrase from the complaint:
The ascending minor scale in the violin at the start of Come On Down is distinctive. And a substantially similar figure appears in “The Box” 24 times. “It is the key feature of the song and substantially similar, if not identical… to elements… in Come On Down.”
Let’s see. Here’s “The Box” by Roddy Ricch
And here’s “Come On Down” by Greg Perry.
So there are the two opening orchestra figures the complaint mentioned. And since that’s the foremost point they evidently plan to make, we think that’s that. But the plaintiff clearly disagrees and perhaps so does his musicologist.
The real reason they’re wrong, and the fun reason they’re wrong.
The real reason their wrong is glissando is a common compositional element. And this one is a quick ascending Bb minor scale. Scales are not protected by copyright. If I, as a producer, want a minor scale ascending glissando that runs an octave, as these both employ, I can find one in countless sample packs and virtual instruments. I can also find two and three-octave glissandos employing different scales, full orchestra, just strings, just winds, harps, et cetera! Minor scale glissandos themselves are NOT a distinctive compositional element; they’re an off-the-shelf item. If you recorded your own, the audio might be distinctive, but this isn’t a sampling case, and as a compositional element, it’s just a garden variety one-octave minor gliss, compositionally unoriginal to the plaintiff’s work.
The more fun reason they’re wrong.
The glissando employed in “The Box” sounds a bit like Perry’s, but it sounds exactly like the one from Ciara and Justin Timberlake’s Love Sex Magic. I don’t even need to alter the pitch. It’s the same right out of the box. Even if Ricch DID at some point admire Perry’s glissando opening on the way to writing The Box, how “distinctive” can it be when Ricch used a different one as have others?
And as we mentioned earlier, Ricci didn’t sample Love Sex Magic either. The sound comes from a sound library by Roland Corporation. Probably programmed by Eric Pershing, who, when he listens to Spotify, hears his sounds everywhere. He knows darn well about this one, I’ll bet. Heaven only knows how many productions it could be on. It’s a stock sound from Rolands SRX libraries and goes back to when it was an expansion chip for Roland’s hardware wavetable synths from the 2000’s that I actually used to own myself. So if you’re watching the Genius interview where the producers of “The Box” say “it’s not a sample,” well, they didn’t sample it, but it’s a sample, even though it’s a synthesizer playing it.
So that’s the main thing, but we can explore, try to more to be charitable, see if we’re missing something. But I find myself having to resort to thoughts like, “they COULD be thinking this? or that?” If a musicologist wants to connect two things, because admittedly, it’s what we do, there’s usually a pathway. A hammer can liken something to a nail if it’s determined to hit something.
So let’s do some grasping. Come On Down is immediately characterized by a step-wise downward two-note motive in the accompaniment that arrives on beat four and then sequences two more times at two beat intervals. So the motive appears on beat four, beat two, beat four. In “The Box,” there’s not that much going on in “The Box.” It’s a fairly simple groove. But it’s hard to miss that “eee-ooo” thing that’s pretty much throughout. I’d imagine is just Ricch himself and they looped it. Since again, we’re looking at compositional elements and not samples, well, that is a “step-wise downward two-note motive.” And it does occur on the fourth beat. And I DO think it’s the sort of thing we’ll find they plan to argue. But these two notes in “The Box” are the third and second degrees of the Bb minor scale coming in on the fourth beat with “eee” and on the first beat with “ooo.” They’re quarter notes, whereas Come On Down’s is 16ths. (And not one, but three of them to create a longer phrase.) And they’re completely different pitches.
Ricci’s two note motive is very short, obviously, and very common; just two pitches, doing very much what they’re bound to do; they follow the harmony. Which, by the way…
The chord progression in The Box is (usually) ||: Bbm9 | Ebm7 Fm :||
I could probably call that Fm an “Fm (add 11),” but don’t sweat it.
The ‘eee’ is the b7 (Db) over the Ebm7 chord, and it resolves the way it’s most likely to, by half step down to C for the “ooo” which is the 9th in the Bbm9. This is just two notes, as brief a phrase as can be composed, and there’s nothing distinctive about it in terms of the notes. The “eee-ooo” sound is certain distinctive, the way he performs it, but not the notes. There’s no reason anyone needs to go trying to figure out from where Ricch got it. He got it from “how music is made.” This is unoriginal and unprotectable for countless reasons.
The other thing I surmise they’ll argue is that the glissando in The Box appears several times
That high Bb in “The Box?” If we’re still looking for reasons why this case is silly, the corresponding or analogus note in the gliss from “Come On Down” is an G#. So they’re different notes, but it’s not that; we could solve that with pitch shift. It’s that they’re different notes within their respective keys. “The Box” is in the key of Bb minor and the note is Bb so it’s tonic. Come on Down is in the key of B major. So the G# is a completely different idea.
The chord progression in Come On Down (nearly throughout) is: ||: Emaj7 | Bmaj7 :||
So that G# is the third degree in Perry’s IV chord. And he doesn’t play it over the Bmaj7 (nor should he have.” So compositionally, these are significant differences.
To beat on this further, “The Box” is in a minor key, Bb minor. Minor keys do contain major chords, but “The Box” doesn’t use them. “Come On Down” is in a major key, B major. Major keys contain minor chords, but except for the opening string glissando, “Come On Down” never again uses one. In fact, the minor glissando that it opens with is barely relevant to anything that follows. It is hard to imagine even a very determined analyst finding any melodic figures in common when the underlying harmonies will have nothing in common, ever. So if there are any melodic similarities cited in the analysis the complaint claims was performed, I have to say, I’d certainly expect it to be a mistaken observation.
Rhythmically the grooves are dissimilar. “The Box” does not employ the sort of syncopations that give “Come On Down” all of its charming grooviness. The drums are typical of the genre and apart from a kinda interesting maniuplated bass drum sound, it’s straightforward enough to have come from anywhere and nowhere.
This is very different by the way from the way “Come On Down” probably inspired “Word Play” and “I Remember,” both of which use a longer expression of the sample from Come On Down, both of which are in major keys, and both of which to a much greater extent follow that same harmonic scheme from Come On Down that rode in with the samples they used. They sound like each other. The Box sounds nothing like any of them.
Come On Down is a cool track. But I largely baffled by how this case came to be. The base case I’d have to imagine is that someone heard a glissando and then, convinced of its significance, continued to imagine other similarites in what would be only very vaguely relatable sorts of compositional elections that make up “The Box.”
We looked more than hard enough, trying to put ourselves in the plaintiff’s shoes. Very very simply, the opinion is that this case has no merit whatsoever. Here at year end, it’s hard to think of one with less from 2022.