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Olivia Rodrigo and Paramore
Illustration Callum Abbott

Olivia Rodrigo, Paramore, and the murky tides of copyright infringement

Hayley Williams has been retroactively added as a co-writer on ‘good 4 u’, but should we really copyright sonic ideas when music is directly inspired by what came before it?

Singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo has retroactively added a songwriting credit to two of the hits from her debut album, Sour, due to similarities between them and songs by Taylor Swift and Paramore. Reportedly, these amendments have cost her millions. Rodrigo and her producer and co-writer, Daniel Nigro, have given half of the royalties from her single “good 4 u” to Paramore’s Hayley Williams and former guitarist Josh Farro; half is split between Taylor Swift, Jack Antonoff, and Annie Clark (St Vincent) for an interpolation Rodrigo used on “deja vu”.

Ahead of Sour’s release, Rodrigo – a devout and proud Swift fan – mentioned she took inspiration from Swift’s song “Cruel Summer” for the bridge on her second single, “deja vu”. Swift, Antonoff, and St Vincent were given credit two months after the album’s release; in late August, Williams and Farro were retroactively added as writers on “good 4 u”, a pop-punk breakup anthem, perhaps because of how similar it seems to sound to Paramore’s “Misery Business” in terms of the melody and overall “vibe” the song evokes.

Due to Rodrigo’s proclaimed inspiration from Swift, are the days of citing personal inspiration and giving fellow artists and genres their flowers long gone when it comes to songwriting? “Unfortunately, I think labels and managers (and publicists) are going to put the kibosh on artists speaking too freely about their songwriting process,” Blake Robin, an artist, songwriter, producer, and DJ, tells Dazed. “Any optimism that a post-“Blurred Lines” chill might be thawing, in the wake of the recent Katy Perry and Led Zeppelin cases, is dead.”

He is referring to the landmark Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye case of 2013. After Gaye’s estate claimed ownership of “an entire genre”, Thicke and Williams were found guilty of copyright infringement and ordered to pay out $7.3 million, which was later reduced in 2018 to just over $5 million, along with half of future royalties of “Blurred Lines”. Recently, both Perry and Led Zeppelin won their own cases on the matter, but as new popular artists like Olivia Rodrigo now become the subject of “did they or didn’t they?” infringe upon another artist’s intellectual property, it’s worth considering whether pulling back the curtain on songwriting is worth the potential monetary and legal ramifications.

But is Rodrigo actually guilty of anything? In comparison to “Misery Business,” for instance, “good 4 u” may share a similar melody and chord progressions; they’re both guitar-heavy and lyrically angsty. But they have differentiating factors as well. In the Swift situation, it’s not even the entirety of Rodrigo’s song that sounds similar, it’s simply a facet of it. (And many argue that “deja vu” isn’t the strongest case of interpolation, despite Rodrigo verbally saying she was inspired by “Cruel Summer”).

Isn’t there value in introducing genres or sounds to a younger generation, especially if it’s not plagiarism? Does evoking a similar “feeling” really warrant possible litigation, credit, and compensation?

Rodrigo giving retroactive songwriting credit sparked various thinkpieces and lengthy Twitter threads about how music is made and what constitutes ‘stealing’, with artists like Elvis Costello and Adam Levine weighing in with support for the teenage phenom. For what it’s worth, her album, which debuted in May, did give credit when it was due. It originally included one track credited to both Swift and Antonoff. The song, “1 step forward, 3 steps back” uses an interpolation – a re-recording of a melody (or portions of it) from a previously recorded song – of Swift’s song “New Year’s Day”.

But should artists be frowned upon – or worse, have legal action taken against them – for being inspired by a “vibe” or genre of music? After all, Rodrigo and her team had been in touch with Paramore prior to Sour’s debut – fair use, presumably, was discussed.

The answer is complicated. And Rodrigo certainly isn’t the first, nor will she be the last artist to be accused of copyright infringement. Her situation certainly doesn’t set precedent; in fact, these cases, when taken to court, aren’t predictable – just ask Thicke and Williams. (To be clear, no lawsuits were filed against Rodrigo. Instead, credit was given, and an agreement was made in terms of how that credit amounts to monetisation).

Copyrights are put in place to serve a purpose: to encourage people to create by offering financial rewards for their work, and the other purpose is to allow the public to have access to those works once they’re created, says Jay Fialkov, professor of music business and management at Berklee College. Sometimes, these two purposes can compete against each other. To decide whether a copyright is considered ‘infringed upon’, there are two criteria generally studied. “The way the courts allow you to prove copying, in the absence of direct evidence, is that you can prove two things,” says Fialkov. “First, you can prove that the second creator had access to the original work. And on top of access, you have to prove ‘substantial similarity’ – not just similarity, ‘substantial similarity’. The combination of access and ‘substantial similarity’ will allow a court to conclude that copying occurred.”


Reply to @elhennaproblema hey all u @livbedumb narcs: u did it, hayleys getting her 💰🙄🚨#greenscreen

♬ good 4 u - Olivia Rodrigo

Fialkov adds that “reasonable people can disagree on a case by case basis” about whether something is considered “substantially similar,” which is why these cases can go either way when taken to court. ‘Access’, too, may seem like a cut and dry standard to decide upon, but it can also be unclear.

For instance, in 1976, George Harrison was found guilty of plagiarism. The former Beatle’s song, “My Sweet Lord”, was found by a Manhattan judge to be “the very same song” as “He’s So Fine”, a song recorded by The Chiffons. However, the judge also stated Harrison plagiarised “subconsciously,” claiming that while Harrison may not have been aware of the original song when he wrote his own, he “knew this combination of sounds would work because it already had worked in a song his conscious mind did not remember”. In this case, Harrison infringed on a copyright because he had access to the original work because it existed, even though he was not aware of that access.

Lana Del Rey, Drake, Ed Sheeran, and Sam Smith have all been accused of copyright infringement as well. Some lost their cases, some prevailed; some are awaiting judgement day. In Thicke & Williams v. Gaye, Gaye’s estate won on the precipice that Thicke and Williams copied Gaye's entire “genre”, among a few other similarities, which begs the original question: should a genre, or “feeling”, be copyrighted?

“Many people were surprised, including lawyers, and even artists, in that case,” said Fialkov. “Some people thought that what (Thicke & Williams) were really taking was common to lots of works, and was not especially distinctive. But when you're involved in copyright infringement, when it goes to court, there's no predicting what will happen.”

“It's not unusual to have similarities – but the difference between similarity and ‘substantial similarity’, there’s a fine line and nobody knows it” – Jay Fialkov, professor of music business and management

There’s plenty of risks you take when going to court – which is perhaps why Rodrigo and her team decided to give attribution to avoid a lawsuit – such as legal fees and the unpredictable nature of these cases. “All music is influenced to some extent on what came before,” said Fialkov. “It’s not unusual to have similarities – but the difference between similarity and ‘substantial similarity’, there's a fine line and nobody knows it.”

What’s the solution? Similar to covering a song, could there be a blanket fee associated with interpolating, so there’s freedom to create but protections put in place? Both Fialkov and Robin aren’t sure there’s an easy or effective fix. 

“As much as I’d love a blanket fee to work, similar to how covers are handled, it’s so subjective that it may be impossible,” said Robin. “It’s rarely any one, single element that’s in question: even with Rodrigo/Paramore, it’s the melody along with the chords and the pop-punk vibe (tempo, crunchy guitars etc.).”

“I don’t think we’re talking about a situation that requires changing the law,’ says Fialkov. “I think that once something has been created, perhaps, people need to be more conscientious in terms of determining – if only through a conversation with the artist – as to whether or not this is something that they should deal with in advance.”