March 13, 2023 Musicology No Comments

After sixty years or so of being the “World’s Greatest Rock And Roll Band,” The Rolling Stones hadn’t released a song in many years. They were inspired though to write about the pandemic lockdowns. We got another Stones song — who knows how many more we’ll get, and for their trouble, Keith and Mick got a copyright infringement lawsuit.

In this case, my forensic analysis and comparison of Rolling Stone’s “Living In A Ghost Town” versus the plaintiff’s two works, “So Sorry” and “Seed Of God,” is not really what this is about. And I won’t even leave you in suspense. I’ve looked and quickly determined that this has no merit and furthermore, I’ll be both surprised and a little dismayed if it doesn’t get dismissed in its early rounds. But even if question of the Rolling Stone’s liability in this case isn’t especially interesting, I think some thoughtfulness about the types of intuition, perception, and hypothesies that can lead to such a suit are a good use of a few minutes.

The complaint, filed late last week by Sergio Garcia Fernandez, who performs as “Angelslang,” claims “Living In A Ghost Town” “misappropriates key protected elements of “So Sorry,” including without limitation its vocal melodies, the chord progressions, the drum beat patterns, the harmonica parts, the electric bass line parts, the tempos, and other key signatures” and also misappropriates “key protected elements of “Seed of god (Talent in the Trash),” including without limitation its harmonic and chord progression and melody.”

The complaint also explains that the plaintiff gave a demo CD to someone in Jagger’s family. Copyright infringement requires copying, and you can’t copy a song you have never heard. Therefore copyright requires an access story of some sort. As a musicologist I only concern myself with whether the substantial similarity between two works leads to the inference that access MUST have occurred somehow. And a story such as, “I gave my demo to someone’s manager” is not a part of my analysis or reasoning, and I hope it’s not even in my subconscious.

But I’m not directly involved in this case so far, so let’s talk!

Sure, it’s plausible that Jagger and Richards heard a demo, but as the recent Ed Sheeran “Shape Of You” decision made clearer, plausibility is not the standard. And isn’t it far more plausible that after 60 years of being the World’s Greatest Rock And Roll Band, every relative and friend of the Rolling Stones has been told by now, “Never, EVER, bring Mick anybody’s demo?”

Most people’s intuition about copying is fundamentally wrong. The temptation, motivation, and need to steal music is drastically overestimated by just about everyone; by laypersons certainly, but also by fairly well-trained musicians. This case exemplifies it. The Rolling Stones do not need your ideas.

Laypersons entertain the notion of copying more easily than they should. For one thing, a song like “Living In A Ghost Town” comes far more easily to Rolling Stones-level songwriters than less skilled musicians assume. The more sensible presumption is innocence, but instead, when plagiarism enters the mind, it begins making associations, connecting dots, finding evidence, and here too, drastically overestimating it. Similarly counter-intuitive is that two songs sounding alike doesn’t correlate all that well to infringement. There are numerous ways two works can benignly sound similar. As here.

Are there similarities between these works? Do they sound a bit alike? Yes.

In lots of ways, yes. But to use language from the plaintiff, musicologically, we consider the question of “key protected elements,” and whether Mr. Fernandez’s “protectable elements” are found in “Ghost.” So let’s take a quick (and charitable) look at that and see if there’s any veracity whatsoever to any of these claims. (Honestly, I had only heard ”Living In A Ghost Town” once prior to this. Now I’ve heard it about thirty times.)

And here is one of Angelslang’s two relevant works. (Cool band name, by the way.)

As for “Seed Of God,” Angelslang has a website and you can hear “Seed Of God” there. It sounds a lot like “So Sorry” and “Living In A Ghost Town.” Again, it’s not that these works don’t sound anything alike. There are observable similarities, but are musical elements that are original to “So Sorry,” or “Seed Of God” found substantially in “Ghost?” The answer to that question is, no. Not one. There is nothing — no sequences of notes, lyrics, chords — nothing. Every single vaguely similar element or quality is musicologically insignificant. It’s not that the Angelslang songs aren’t original. They are. But not every aspect is. Countless songs have this sort of minor blues groove as their underpining. First thing that popped it my head is Tough Enough by the Fabulous Thunderbirds from 1986.

Did you know you can jump on IMDB for lists of top videos by year? This came out in 1986. Fabulous Thunderbirds did Wrap It Up that year too, even that is similar in some respects. The number one on the list, Sledgehammer, another minor groove. Addicted To Love is number three, that too. But further down the list are two Rolling Stones songs, One Hit To The Body, another minor groove, and this one.

I mean, this is just what the Rolling Stones sound like a lot of the time.

Miss You came out ten years earlier!

Isn’t it just as apparent that Angelslang’s songs are cut from the Rolling Stone’s cloth. Nothing wrong with that. And I wouldn’t DREAM of saying Angelslang copied Miss You or Harlem Shuffle! But the plaintiff’s songs which came out twenty and thirty years later sound as similar to these as Living In A Ghost Town does to their garden variety minor blues rock songs. Sounding similar isn’t the criteria. And none of this is the stuff of copying and unlawful appropriation.

And there’s nothing wrong with writing garden variety minor blues rock songs either! Remember, this article isn’t really about the Rolling Stones or Angelslang. (reminding myself.)

I’m also not ranting about opportunism. PERISH THE THOUGHT. I suspect Angelslang is sincere. Plaintiff such as Mr. Fernandez believe they’ve been wronged. AND That’s what this article is about. It’s about the confused and deluded intuition of those who believe they’ve been infringed.

I’ve seen it countless times. Having an access story like, “I gave my demo to somebody,” can lead you down a weird path. Once there’s an access story in place, there seems to be a natural predisposition to see and substantiate plagiarism — the confirmation of an expectation that we’re being taken advantage of — and then, “garbage in garbage out,” similarly delusional conclusions. It’s a sympathetic view. The observations are real enough — as in this case in which there are observable similarities between these works; I can imagine the notions lining up in the plaintiff’s mind leading to the conclusion that copying and plagiarism are the cause, where mere coincidence is the infinitely more available and empirically defensible explanation.

The complaint lists “Vocal melodies, the chord progressions, the drum beat patterns, the harmonica parts, the electric bass line parts, the tempos, and other key signatures,” which, in order to substantiate an infringement claim, would need to constitute original expression in Angelslang’s piece, and be found significantly in “Living In A Ghost Town.” And I looked and found none of those things to be true. None.

I confess. I don’t even like the Rolling Stones. Worse, I’m still a little miffed about the Bittersweet Symphony thing! (yes, I know that wasn’t really Mick and Keith’s doing.)

There is nothing at all to be found in “So Sorry,” or in “Seed Of God” that is original and protectable by copyright and which substantially appears in “Living In A Ghost Town.” And that’s where the bar is. This one will go away. Bet on it.

Written by Brian McBrearty