Skip to main content Accessibility help

Translating the Sound of Music: Forensic Musicology and Visual Evidence in Music Copyright Infringement Cases

  • Michael Mopas (a1) and Amelia Curran (a2)

In music copyright infringement cases, forensic musicologists are often called to testify as to whether or not two songs are ‘substantially similar.’ While it is standard practice to rely on experts to dissect the works in question, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Until the 1950s, it was not the scientific analysis of the pieces, but the impressions they left on the ‘untrained ears’ of everyday listeners that was used to determine copyright infringement. This paper presents an overview of American music copyright infringement cases to document this shift in how the question of substantial similarity has been approached. We argue that the courts’ inability to objectify what listeners hear created the need for experts who could translate music into legal evidence that could be visually witnessed. This practice of judging plagiarism according to how songs look on paper may account for why the courts have viewed musical sampling as copyright violations.

Les musicologues sont souvent appelés à donner un témoignage d’expert dans les affaires de plagiat de musique, où on leur demande si, à leur avis, deux chansons différentes sont « substantiellement similaires ». Bien que le recours à des experts pour analyser des œuvres ne soit pas nouveau, il reste que le phénomène est relativement récent. En effet, jusque dans les années 1950, l’on déterminait s’il y avait eu violation ou non de droit d’auteur par l’impression générale que produisait un morceau sur les auditeurs profanes plutôt que par analyse scientifique. Cet article présente un survol des affaires de plagiat musical aux États-Unis pour retracer le virage de la méthode d’évaluation de la similarité substantielle. L’auteur avance que l’incapacité des tribunaux de décrire objectivement l’expérience auditive des auditeurs s’est soldée par un recours à des experts capables de traduire la musique en preuve juridique visuelle. La pratique de juger le plagiat de chansons par leur apparence visuelle expliquerait pourquoi l’échantillonnage musical serait considéré, par les tribunaux, comme une violation de droit d’auteur.

Hide All
Arewa, O. 2006. From J.C. Bach to hip hop: Musical borrowing, copyright and cultural context. North Carolina Law Review 84 (2): 547645.
Cole, S. 1998. Witnessing identification: Latent fingerprinting evidence and expert knowledge. Social Studies of Science 28 (5–6): 687712.
Cole, S. 2002. Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Craig, C., and Laroche, G.. 2014. Out of tune: Why copyright law needs music lessons. In Intellectual property for the 21st century: Interdisciplinary approaches, ed. Doagoo, B. C., Goudreau, M., Saginur, M., and Scassa, T., 4371. Toronto: Irwin Publishing.
Daston, L. 1988. Classical Probability in the Age of Enlightenment. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ericson, R., Baranek, P., and Chan, J.. 1991. Representing Order: Crime, Law and Justice in the News Media. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Fletcher, R. 1991. Music analysis for expert testimony in music copyright infringement litigation. PhD diss., University of Kansas.
Gordon, W. 1990. Toward a jurisprudence of benefits: The norms of copyright and the problem of private censorship. University of Chicago Law Review 57 (3): 1009–49.
Hibbitts, B. 1994. Making sense of metaphors: Visuality, aurality, and the reconfiguration of American legal discourse. Cardozo Law Review 16 (2): 229356.
Jaszi, P. 1991. Toward a theory of copyright: The metamorphoses of authorship. Duke Law Journal 455 (2): 455502.
Keyes, M. 2004. Musical musings: The case for rethinking music copyright protection. Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law Review 10:407–44.
Litman, J. 1990. The public domain. Emory Law Journal 39:9651023.
McLeod, K., and DiCola, P.. 2011. Creative License: The law and culture of digital sampling. Durham: Duke University Press.
Pettit, M. 2013. The Science of Deception: Psychology and commerce in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sartorio, K., Caron, S., and Abramovitch, S. H.. 2013. Canada and the United States: Differences in copyright law. Last accessed: January 21, 2016.
Taruskin, R. 1992. Tradition and Authority. Early Music 20 (2): 311–25.
Théberge, P. 2004. Technology, Creative Practice and Copyright. In Music and Copyright, ed. Frith, S. and Marshall, L., 139–56. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Valverde, M. 2003. Law’s Dream of a Common Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Allen v. Walt Disney, 41 F. Supp. 134 (S.D.N.Y. 1941)
Arnstein v. Broadcast Music, 137 F. 2d 410 (2d. Cir. 1943)
Arnstein v. Porter, 154 F.2nd 464 (2d. Cir. 1946)
Baxter v. MCA, Inc., 812 F.2nd 421 (9th Cir. 1987)
Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 383 F.3d 390 (6th Cir. 2004)
Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music, 420 F. Supp. 177 (S.D.N.Y. 1976)
Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 579 (1994)
Carew v. R.K.O. Radio Pictures, 43 F. Supp. 199 (S.D. Cal. 1942)
Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991)
Gaste v. Morris Kaiserman, 863 F.2d 1061 (2d Cir. 1988)
Haas v. Feist, 234 F. 105 (S.D.N.Y. 1916)
Hein v. Harris, 175 F. 875 (C.C.S.D.N.Y. 1910), aff’d 183 Fed. 107 (2d. Cir. 1923)
Jollie v. Jaques, 13 F. Cas. 910 (C.C.S.D.N.Y. 1850)(No. 7437)
Jones v. Supreme Music, 101 F. Supp. 989 (S.D.N.Y. 1951)
Northern Music v. King Record Distribution, 105 F. Supp. 393 (S.D.N.Y. 1952)
Satriani v. Martin et al. [Coldplay], No. 08–7987, complaint filed (C.D. Cal. Dec. 4, 2008)
Tisi v. Patrick, 97 F.Supp. 2nd 539, 548–49 (S.D.N.Y. 2000)
Canadian Copyright Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. C-42
The United States Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. §§ 101–810
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Canadian Journal of Law and Society / La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société
  • ISSN: 0829-3201
  • EISSN: 1911-0227
  • URL: /core/journals/canadian-journal-of-law-and-society-la-revue-canadienne-droit-et-societe
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed