Over the years and up to the present day, some producers have alleged that their work was plagiarised and released by others, while others have merely shrugged their shoulders and seen the close similarities as a form of flattery. In some cases, allegations of plagiarism can result in the kind of high-profile spat seen recently when Felix Da Housecat claimed that DJ Hell had taken his work with P Diddy. While Housecat sought out the moral high ground, Hell was fast to put up his legal defences, claiming that he had reached a formal agreement with the US singer before releasing the material.
The advent of new technology, digital downloading and software-generated music has thrown an extra curveball into the equation, making it potentially easier for unscrupulous producers to claim their peers' work as their own. Interestingly though, while the volume of commercially available electronic music has increased, there is no hard evidence to suggest that there has been an attendant increase in such illicit practices. Put simply, plagiarism is no more common now than it was during the '80s and '90s.
But electronic music's reliance on samples also poses another dilemma: while a rip-off may be obvious in pop, the boundaries are blurred in dance music, and the difference between "inspired by" and "borrowed too liberally from" becomes open to an understandably contentious interpretation process. At what point should artists allege plagiarism instead of accepting that a release was merely inspired by one of their old releases?
Scottish producer Funk D'Void, AKA Lars Sandberg, got into trouble with his 2003 single "Emotional Content," which sampled the piano riff from "Whip of the Rhythm," an old Italian house release from the '80s by Chicco Secci. Sandberg hadn't reckoned that the track would do so well or that the sample would get spotted. He also overlooked the fact that Secci had friends in high places. "I had always liked the sound of the hook and had it in the back of my mind to use it one day. Everything was going great until we got the angry call from him—he was pissed," Lars explained. "Sven Väth had already recorded it onto his Cocoon compilation (but not yet released it) before we had a chance to clear the sample, so legally we were on shaky ground. I wasn't even thinking about it: I sample all the time so it was a big wake-up call when finally I got caught out! The reason there was all this hoopla was because he's a mate of Pete Tong and it got out it into the press, which I'm sure didn't harm sales."
In the end however, Lars feels that Secci benefited more than anyone else from the incident, plucked, albeit briefly, from obscurity to capitalise on the situation. "He screwed us on publishing and didn't back down, plus part of the deal was for him to get a release on Soma. He was quite savvy about the whole affair. I still have nightmares about it. I just wanted to get the track out and heard by the public. After this experience I clear most of my samples if they are particularly obvious, but to be honest I hope I never meet Chicco Secci!" Despite this episode, Lars still thinks that sampling is "fair game" and not unreasonably asks: "Where would hip-hop be without samples? Part of the whole techno scene was built on recycling old sounds and making them your own."
Seen from another perspective, though, the practice of another artist lifting key elements from one of your tracks and claiming ownership of them can seem abhorrent. This is exactly what happened to German producer Thomas Brinkmann, whose 2000 "Loplop" release on his Max Ernst label miraculously metamorphosed into Romanian minimal DJ Raresh's 2006 single "Dry Tool." Brinkmann explains his side of the story: "Richie Hawtin licensed the track for his Closer to the Edit mix. 'Loplop' is an eight-minute track, but he just took the climax and Raresh took the main riff from the mix and used it as the centrepiece of 'Dry Tool.' It was a big success for him: it was played and charted by Ricardo Villalobos and Luciano and it helped Raresh to get DJ bookings. I was most disappointed by the fact that Luciano, who has released on Max Ernst, didn't even know about what happened and was playing it," Thomas adds.
Although he declined to respond to Resident Advisor's request for a comment for this article, Raresh did offer the following explanation and apology to Brinkmann via email: "I want to send my apologies to you for the 'Dry Tool' track, I really feel bad about it. I was very young and it was stupid from my side. I used just a measure from the 'Loplop' track but just only a measure from the loop filtered and the rest is from my side," he wrote. "It is very obvious that without your 'Loplop' loop that the track has no groove. Please tell me how can I repair the mistake and what I have to do now because I am feeling really guilty. I want to clear the situation regarding the sample and to give all the credits that are necessary."
While Brinkmann says that many of the demos he receives sound derivative—with much of the current crop using riffs from Luke Slater's '90s releases as their basis—he feels that "the way Raresh did it was a bit too much; he wrote 'written and produced by Raresh' when it wasn't his music." It isn't like the Romanian producer's behaviour is unusual though. For example, French producers Shonky and Jennifer Cardini's "August in Paris," released on Berlin label Mobilee in 2006, sounds like a not-so-distant relation to Canadian producer Jake Fairley's "Cold World," issued on Sender Records back in 2002. When these apparent similarities were pointed out to Shonky, the French producer refuted the claim. "It's pure coincidence because I don't know at all this work from Jack (sic) Farley," he says.
Interestingly, Fairley concurs, but in a roundabout kind of way. "It definitely has some similar stuff to 'Cold World,' but I still don't think it sounds like a blatant rip off. The chords are similar but not the same. Shonky's are the same chords transposed to each note where mine change. The bassline has a similar phrasing, but is monotone instead of melodic. The overall production style is also different, mine being very murky and mysterious and theirs being very clear and digital—so if it's a copy, I think they missed most of the things that make 'Cold World' special. I couldn't say it's over the line."
Jaime Read is less forgiving about plagiarism, but then he probably has better reason to feel aggrieved. One of the UK's most talented deep house and techno producers during the '90s, Read made the mistake of handing over original DATs of his work to veteran Chicago DJ/producer Joe Lewis when he visited the UK in the mid-90s. "I was 18 or 19 at the time and he came to play Lost in London," he recalls. "I was young and naïve and gave him the DATs as he promised I'd get a release."
The next Read heard, Lewis was enjoying a resurgent career, releasing records on Relief, Target and Basement 282. The only trouble was, they were all culled from Read's DATs, didn't belong to Lewis, nor had he asked Read for permission to release them or compensate him. "There is proof that these tracks are mine: one of them featured on a compilation for Kickin' before Lewis decided to put them out under his own name," Jaime explains. As if that wasn't enough, Read alleges that Lewis continued to release his music without permission or credit, putting out an album on Peacefrog in 2005, The Return of Joe Lewis, which consisted largely of Read's material.
"It's not the label's fault, and quite a few people know about it at this stage," Jaime says. "Lewis had been around since the mid-80s and hadn't released anything for a while until I gave him my DAT," he adds. Read claims that Lewis's actions have had a detrimental effect on his own career, which has stagnated since the late '90s. He feels that the whiff of controversy has scared off other labels.
"I'll be honest, it has knocked me back a bit," Jaime says. "I admit that I made a mistake by giving him my DATs in the first place, but I think because of the whole incident, people are no longer sure if I make my own music and just don't want to get involved with me." Lewis did not respond to attempts by Resident Advisor to contact him for a comment.
So what happens when a track that's been plagiarised from another producer goes on sale commercially—does the distributor or store have a responsibility to vet releases for authenticity? Melle Boels, who works for digital distributor EPM says that due to the high volume of releases, it has become impossible to verify that the label or artist really is the rightful owner: "Except for when it's very obvious by looking at the titles there are no systems in place before a release goes live," she explains. "Occasionally, it gets noticed when a staff member happens to listen to a release and hears an obvious sample. When noticed, questions are asked to the label. Once a release goes live and the store gets a complaint from someone claiming to be the owner of the song some stores, but not all, take this very seriously and they'll forward the dispute to the label/distributor, often taking the disputed content down in the mean time. "The labels providing the music are ultimately the ones responsible for providing only content that is legally theirs," she adds. "Of course things do slip through. If a claim from the rightful owner is brought before a distributor it is usually pulled back from all outlets instantly."
A spokesman for download site Beatport says that it prefers to let both parties reach a conclusion without their involvement. "We would like to avoid getting in the middle of disputes like this. Very often these conflicts are best fought and solved by the involved parties themselves," he says. However, Boels feels that if a producer or a label released something he/she didn't own, "the label would be confronted with a claim to pay back all royalties earned and maybe a penalty on top. Most stores would give out sales numbers to the rightful owners to assist them in their claim." Of course, if it proves impossible to find resolution through an informal process and, given the futility of taking legal action when such small sums of money are involved, an artist may seek a karmic approach to achieve redress for the wrong visited on them.
The Raresh incident deterred Brinkmann from licensing any of his tracks to mixes, but he decided to use similar methods to the Romanian when a major label stonewalled him on a remix job. "Back in 1999, I did a remix for a band called Joy Zipper," Thomas explains. "I sent the remix in, but there was no answer, no contract and no money from the label, Universal. I was a little bit pissed off so I decided to release it as 'Isch' on my own label, which used some very basic samples from the original and the singer saying 'Isch'." Fast forward nearly a decade and Belgian label Curle decide to give "Isch" its first release on vinyl, having previously only been available on a compilation.
"Curle was informed about the fact that this track was already a remix and it was part of the contract," Thomas explains. "Soulphiction did the remix and used much more from the Joy Zipper material, nearly the whole song line," he continues. "Tabitha from the band figured this out and contacted us and she was absolutely right about the fact, that we should have written Joy Zipper credits on it. Like nearly everybody who works with samples, I took things and to get revenge I took too much—but it's part of the game. Music is made out of other music." Brinkmann's approach may not deter unscrupulous producers from benefiting from the blood, sweat and tears of others, but it may help those who have been ripped off to feel a little bit better.