Olivia Rodrigo’s Music Copyright Controversy

September 22, 2021

Since Olivia Rodrigo’s smash-hit debut album Sour was released in May, she has repeatedly faced plagiarism accusations. In response, she retroactively granted songwriting credits to the songwriters whom she allegedly plagiarized.

This has happened not once, not twice, but a shocking three times so far. First, she granted songwriting credits to Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff for her song “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” which is based on Swift’s “New Year’s Day” from 2017. Then, she credited Swift and Antonoff again, along with St. Vincent. This time it was for her song “Deja vu,” based on Swift’s 2019 hit “Cruel Summer.” Finally, in late August she granted songwriting credits to Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Joshua Farro for using part of Paramore’s 2007 song “Misery Business” on her hit “Good 4 U.”

Social media helped fuel the controversy regarding similarities between Rodrigo’s songs and other pieces. For example, popular TikTok creator Jarred Jermaine released a video in May comparing “Good 4 U” to “Misery Business.” His video has accumulated more than 5 million views as of mid-September. There is also a Reddit thread titled “How is Olivia Rodrigo not being sued for plagiarism?” that has prompted a host of comments, with commentors both defending and criticizing Rodrigo. Commentors also question the originality of some of Rodrigo’s other songs on Sour, suggesting that Rodrigo may have to grant more songwriting credits in the future.

Williams v. Gaye ushered in a new era in music copyright law. Today, sensible artists promptly grant songwriting credits when accused of plagiarism, well before the case can end up in the courtroom.

Rodrigo is not the first musician caught in a plagiarism controversy. Recent music copyright disputes have involved Radiohead, Lana Del Ray, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and more. Perhaps freshest in the public’s memory is the highly publicized case over 2013’s best-selling single of the summer, “Blurred Lines.” In the case, Williams v. Gaye, “Blurred Lines” writers Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and rapper T.I. were sued for copying part of Marvin Gaye’s best-selling 1977 song “Got To Give It Up.” In this battle-of-the-hit-singles that reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Gaye’s hit came out on top. In the end, Gaye’s estate was awarded more than $5 million in damages.

The American Bar Association describes music copyright cases as “unique, costly, difficult, and complex,” partly due to the confusing nature of the cases. Music copyrighting is complicated, and juries are often unfamiliar with this niche area of law. Musical experts are called in to explain nuanced concepts at trial. Further, jurors may not understand exactly where to draw the line between using a song as inspiration and copying the song. When discussing the jurors’ mindset during the Williams v. Gaye trial, the ABA notes that “to a careful juror [it may have seemed that] any copying of the Gaye composition brings liability.” The outcome of the case is still debated amongst legal scholars today. Regardless, Williams v. Gaye ushered in a new era in music copyright law. Today, sensible artists promptly grant songwriting credits when accused of plagiarism, well before the case can end up in the courtroom.

Granting songwriting credit is not just a symbolic gesture—it comes with a huge pay cut for Rodrigo. As seen in Williams v. Gaye, songwriters who are found to have plagiarized can owe millions in damages. In Rodrigo’s case, this matter never reached the courts, but Rodrigo still loses millions, even without enduring a legal battle. By listing Taylor Swift and others as songwriters, she entitles them to royalties that will continue to accumulate for years to come. For example, Rodrigo’s royalties for “Deja Vu” were originally split between only her and her co-writer Daniel Nigro. Now, Rodrigo and Nigro are entitled to only 50% of the song’s royalties.

Despite the significant monetary losses Rodrigo will experience from granting songwriting credits, she may have saved herself money in the long run. In a post-Williams v. Gaye era, Rodrigo was wise to grant songwriting credits before lawsuits were filed, thus saving a great amount of time, money, and further bad publicity. More music copyright controversies are likely to arise in the future, and Olivia Rodrigo’s actions should serve as an example for how to quickly rectify the situation when caught in a plagiarism controversy.

Sarah Cheeley

Before law school, Sarah attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for college, where she double majored in History and Sociology. In law school, Sarah is a member of Women in Law and an avid pro bono participant. Sarah is interested in pursuing a career in litigation.

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