Thought: As a guitar player, you can play the blues in pretty much any scale, A for instance with stock rhythms and endings.

Example: You write a song in that scale you may even use the same solo runs as other more famous blues artists. You release your song on the radio list it with a Performing Rights Organization and no one cries a foul of your blatant usage of chords/performance or solo runs that lift directly off of other more famous artists. But yet if someone in another genre does this, say for example, the ColdPlay vs Joe Satriani/Cat Stevens or even Led Zeppelin in their lifting of riffs and lyrics from old blues folk rile up the copyright demons and cries of plagiarism. Why didn't Cat Stevens sue Joe as well?

Question: Where does the line between what is acceptable to call plagiarism and musical "style" come in to play? I would rather like this to be discussed from a non-financial place and a more creative artist stance without regard to lawyers. Maybe it is just a legal matter I don't understand?

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    Don't go giving the "MAFIAA" any ideas. It's bad enough as it is. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 15:50
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    Oh noes. How will Tom Petty eat?
    – slim
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 16:42
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    In regards to the creative/artistic stance I believe that you're observing a feature that comes from the original, word-of-mouth, tradition for these styles. A tradition where imitation was more often considered flattery rather than theft, and where the idea of connecting with established traditional material and then (slightly) modifying it to make it your were integral to the style/genre; however I'm not enough of a musicologist to back this up.
    – Dave
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 17:15
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    good artists copy; great artists steal.
    – Dave
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 17:17
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    Who exactly would have legal standing to sue someone over such an infringement? If you bring a lawsuit, the judge asks you to prove that you have standing to sue, meaning that you own something that somebody else is stealing. Nowhere does "the law" prosecute someone for plagiarism or copyright infringement. The party who owns something has to bring a lawsuit against someone that they allege is stealing something from them. Nobody would have legal standing for the kind of lawsuit you are envisioning.
    – user1044
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 1:43

10 Answers 10


I think there's an element of pragmatism to this. Some people are out for what they can get, but they also have an eye on what they could lose.

Let's say you wrote Stack Exchange Blues, you're collecting royalties from it, and you hear my song Downvotes Got Me Cryin', which you believe steals enough to perhaps warrant a law suit.

Well, you're going to have to consider: do you think Stack Exchange Blues stands up to close examination. Might my lawyer argue that your song is actually a rip-off of something else -- leaving you exposed to the risk of being sued by the owner of that song?

Or might he say "Sure, my client's song has the same chords as Stack Exchange Blues, but that chord sequence is shared by these 100 songs, some dating to Victorian times"?

So, if your song sounds like something else that's unique, you could be accused of plagiarism. If your song sounds like a thousand other songs, you're clear.

  • 8
    Those are some funny song titles, Slim. Good response.
    – MrTheBard
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 17:50

To answer the question: "Where does the line between what is acceptable to call plagiarism and musical "style" come in to play?" I have to say that unfortunately, pragmatically, it comes down to what you as a plaintiff can prove in court. It really does come down to the law.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I am not giving any legal advice, which in any case would meet different requirements under the laws of different nations.

The over-simplified answer is that a melody is copyrightable, and a lyric is copyrightable, whereas a chord progression is not copyrightable and the finer points of an arrangement are not copyrightable either.

Anyone can register a copyright on a song or piece of music. If that person believes that someone else has infringed on their copyright, it is up to that copyright holder to sue the other party and to try to prove in court that copyright infringement has occurred. To do so successfully, the copyright holder would have to prove several things, among them that the plaintiff's piece holds a valid copyright that has not expired, that the piece copyrighted was unique, that the defendant had copied the characteristics of the plaintiff's copyrighted piece to a degree that constitutes infringement in the opinion of the judge or jury, and also to prove that the defendent must have heard the plaintiff's copyrighted song before the defendant wrote the song that it is alleged had infringed on the plaintiff's copyright.

If there are indeed hundreds of different copyrighted blues or country songs in the world with the same chord progression and song structure, then a plaintiff cannot successfully prove in court that someone else has infringed on his one copyrighted song with regard to the chord progression and song structure alone. The defendant would successfully argue that they were copying the characteristics of many songs, but not the specific song they were being sued for that day.

In other words, if you assert that you have a copyright, you have to defend it yourself in court with your own lawyers and your own money. The burden is on you to prove that what you have is entirely unique and a specific person has infringed upon the entirely unique characteristics of your property in a distinct way, and that neither you nor the other person got your ideas from anywhere else.

The outcome of this, over many years of court trials all over the world, and reflected in the writing of laws all over the world, including international copyright treaties, is that it is easy to prove that a melody or lyrics are distinct and defendable in court. However, generally, things like a chord progression, a song structure, and a rhythm, all by themselves and not in conjunction with a certain melody or lyrics, are not things that can be asserted in court to be copyrightable. Nobody could win a case with that.

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    Nice answer. BTW, in the jazz world it's very common for musicians to take the chords of a pop song, get rid of the words and melody, and create a new jazz song out of it. Also, when a song is originally created as a jazz composition, it's common for other jazz musicians to use the chords, eliminate any words or melody, and record it under a new title without credit to or royalties paid to the original author of the chord progression. A classic example of this is Coltrane's "Giant Steps." This is not considered plagiarism. It's a normal practice in jazz.
    – user9480
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 22:56
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    I like this answer, but it oversimplifies with the suggestion that the chords of a song are not subject to copyright. That's often true, but not true in general. International copyright law does not simply put lyrics and melodies in one column, chords and rhythms in the other. Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 15:39
  • Yes, @MarcksThomas, you are correct. But when a composer registers a copyright, it does not mean that a court has judged that the piece is unique. It just means that there has been a record that a piece has been registered for a copyright. It still all comes down to the plaintiff's ability to convince a judge and a courtroom that he holds a copyright that has been infringed upon by a defendant. And generally, at least in the United States of America, where I live, a chord progression in the absence of a melody does not hold up in court as grounds for infringement.
    – user1044
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:58

This is an interesting summary of the whole George Harrison My Sweet Lord/He's So Fine plagiarism case, with some discussion of the legal issues involved: http://abbeyrd.best.vwh.net/mysweet.htm

Of course, there are many examples of legal plagiarism of classical tunes. To name three: "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" was taken from the middle of Chopin's "Fantasie Impromptu", the piano lick in Barry Manilow's "Could it Be Magic" is part of Chopin's C Minor prelude, and "Groovy Kind of Love" is nearly identical to the Rondo in Clementi's G Major Sonatina.

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    So there is a concept of "legal" plagiarism? I guess this might point out that people have always repeated popular melodies through the ages but in modern times there is this "commodification" of melodies that was not present in earlier societies?
    – tony.stack
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 16:36
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    Well, plagiarism is different from copyright. The old melodies are out of copyright, so you can use them any way you want. All the same, IMHO Emerson,Lake,&Palmer are guilty of gross plagiarism because they fail to give authorial credit to Janacek and others for nearly every tune on their first album. In fact, they list themselves as the composers, which they certainly aren't. Meanwhile, the Anacreontic Society is planning a lawsuit against the USofA over a certain National Anthem :-) Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 18:29
  • Yes, certainly. "Legal" plagiarism involves copying something from a song that is in the public domain, meaning that it is so old that it cannot be copyrighted, or if it once had a copyright, said copyright has expired. Songwriters and composers do this all the time, and it is legitimate.
    – user1044
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 20:11
  • Basically anything written before about 1920, anywhere in the world, is in the public domain and can be freely adapted into new compositions. This is an important concept.
    – user1044
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 20:15
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    But I should point out that we don't use your term of "legal plagiarism". We call it "adapting something that is in the public domain". It is not considered plagiarism if everyone knows what the source is, and no copyright is being violated. This is a legitimate technique in songwriting and music composition.
    – user1044
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 20:21

Folk, country and blues draw on what is called "the oral tradition". Song "families" have always been part of the oral tradition, and building on -- even re-using -- pre-existing harmonic/melodic structures was/is common practice in those genres. Artists in those genres just kind of "get" that's the case. In the oral tradition, there was no concept of ownership. The idea of ownership is a relatively recent one.

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    There is the possibility that a traditional song may be copyrighted later. A famous example is "Happy Birthday to You" that was copyrighted in 1935 despite it being based on earlier works.
    – liftarn
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 13:11
  • Any time you make a substantially new arrangement or version of a traditional song in the public domain, you can copyright your new version. That is permissable under international copyright law.
    – user1044
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 16:54

This is a complicated topic, but I think it all boils down to conditioning and what listeners like to hear. There are many ways to harmonize a melody, yet most people use predictable chord progressions because they're easy to follow, work with, and understand.

Jazz is a form of music that is very alienating to non-musicians. I'm certain there are countless people that are not musicians that claim to like jazz, but nonetheless jazz is harder for non musicians to appreciate. Even in the complexities of jazz there are still patterns and a sense of predictability, but their harmonies are more complex and thus may be harder for people to enjoy.

Chord progressions such as the I IV V and ii V I are commonly used because people like to hear them. We could harmonize the tunes that use these progressions in countless ways, but then we have to worry about how much dissonance we introduce. I think that the use of chord progressions are pretty much out of the realm of being considered plagiarism.

I think it is plagiarism when a melody is almost a complete copy of another melody. I have heard countless songs that are rip off's yet they are not considered plagiarism. Take Sublime's "What I got" vs. The Beatles "Lady Madonna". Obviously The Beatles are better and Sublime's song is not good, but nonetheless there are glaring similarities in the melody.

Inevitably two composers will arrive at similar or perhaps even the same melodies. Plagiarism fights usually go on when a composer feels that the other person listened to their song before composing the accused work. There are standards and even generic riffs that seem like they're free for the public to use. Such as blues progressions, bass riffs, etc. Again, main melodies are usually the tipping point for plagiarism.

  • I read that Joe Satriani stresses that his motives are ruled by artistic purity and an overriding sense of right and wrong. But if that were the case he would have to concede to ripping of Cat Stephen's "Foreigner Suite" from 1973 in melody as well.
    – tony.stack
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 16:05
  • I like your answer minus the opinion based "Obviously The Beatles are better and Sublime's song is not good, but nonetheless there are glaring similarities in the melody." Doesn't add anything to your answer's validity and in some cases (like anyone who likes Sublime) it would detract from it. Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 19:16

There are law-based answers to this question, but the laws about music had to be constructed around the preexisting musical culture. Ultimately the reason you don't get sued for copying a chord progression probably has to be explained in terms of the reasons why chord progressions are not considered as unique and individualistic as melodies. Here are three such reasons:

(1) A chord progression is more arguably a form, while a melody is more arguably a composition. If someone asks you to explain the sonata form or the 12-bar blues form, you're not going to be able to explain it without explaining how the chords create the foundation of the form.

(2) There are theoretically infinitely many possible chord progressions, just as there are infinitely many melodies. But in reality chord progressions aren't really as varied. For example, some huge number of musical compositions consist of I-V-I-V-I-V-I... In a harmony course, they teach you certain rules about harmonic progression, and those rules aren't really prescriptions but descriptions of things that composers in the past seem to have done, because they worked well. There are infinitely many other things you can do with chords, but they generally don't work as well.

(3) Chord progressions can be blurred by various chord substitutions, added tones, suspensions, etc. A jazz musician might recognize a certain piano accompaniment as being based on the chords of "I Got Rhythm" or "Giant Steps," but to the average person, or even to a professional musician who's not a jazz musician, there might be no resemblance at all. (I had a harmony teacher once who ridiculed a jazz musician's claim that the notes D, G, and B could be a voicing of a C chord...with the root and third omitted and an added M7 and 9.)


For blues specifically :

A good percentage of blues follows the same chord progression (good ol' 12-bar) and a LOT follow very similar paths with melody, riffs, bridges, and lyrics.

Why don't they all sue each other ?

The problem would be identifying who did it first. The 12-bar progression is thought to have eminated from African slave/chain gangs, meaning there's no single "owner" and the blues style of singing gives rise to a lot of similar melodies meaning it's hard to identify who 'invented' it - if any one person ever did.

As for lyrics .. Who woke up earliest this morning ...

This doens't apply to other genres so much (eg Coldplay vs Satriani) because they're not so much following a traditional way of making a tune (blues); they're coming up with their own traits and so I guess it's easier to identify one tune from another, and easier to stake a claim on a particular sequence of melody etc.

This makes it sound like I'm saying "all blues sounds the same" - I'm not because a lot goes into the feel of the song of course, but essentially 12 bar blues is one chord sequence served up in a zillion songs, and no-one knows who did it first.


To answer the OP question of 'In blues, country blues, why don't songwriters get sued for aping the same progressions/tempos/scales as other established blues songs?'

Progressions, tempos and scales are tools to use to express a musical thought that we all use. The melody and combination of chords with rhythmic patterns are the work of these tools and therefore a creation of the author.


I think DougusMaximus came the closest to the real answer. Being a rock musician (and especially for guitar players), just about the first "whole song" chord progression one learns is the "12 bar blues". Written by... well, no one. There is no copyright or ownership on it, because it has been around for so long, no one knows who to give first credit to it for, and basically anyone/everyone is able to use it whenever they feel like it. Now if you start deviating from the "standard" 12 bar blues chord progression, and you deviate enough, and your deviation is exactly like someone else's deviation, then there MIGHT be a problem. But generally, in blues/rock/country or any genre of music really, if it sounds exactly like or close to the standard 12 bar blues progression (look that up to see what the actual chords are), then there will not be a problem. From a music composition standpoint - obviously lyrics become a whole other matter.


I'm a blues guitarist/singer and I think that suing someone for plagiarism on a melody I might have come up with in a song is somewhat pointless. First of all when I play the 12 bar chord progression say in the key of A, then I can use most notes in the pentatonic scale in that same key to solo over it or construct a melody line for the lyrics.

My point is : who am I to deny another artist the use of the same notes that I do over a similar 12 bar blues in the same key? There is no way I could claim any of those notes as uniquely mine since they simply belong to that specific scale and anyone is free to use them in any order they see fit.

To me the music is a vehicle to get the story of the song across, to support and underline the emotion of it and the only thing I feel could be subject to copyrights would be the actual lyrics that tell that story.

I feel that almost anything you can come up with ( in blues as well as any other style of music) has been pretty much done before many times over in one form or another. This whole copyright madness is all about 1 thing only: money.. nothing else.

If I were to sue someone for publishing a song that very closely resembles one of mine and demanded part of the money he/she earned with it, well that would as stupid as suing my neighbour for doing the same daytime job as I do, using the same tools, driving more or less the same pickup and wearing the same work clothes and demand they pay me part of their earnings for copying my way of generating income.

Someone like SRV played a lot of other peoples songs, played 'em in his own unique way but always acknowledged the original artists and never claimed their songs to be his own. And by doing so gained a lot of respect and still made some decent cash. Put the love of music before the money, after all that's what it should really be about.

  • walloftextishardtoread… not does this answer the question, it's more of a rant or a blog post.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 11:12

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