Intellectual Property

Importing Inspiration: Plagiarism in Pop Music


Big news in the music world: according to a judge at the Chinese Musicians Exchange Association in Taiwan, pop music's hottest sellers are lacking in originality! More seriously, it seems that not a few musicians seek out less well-known foreign songs as material for their own albums.

Bao Xiaosong, one of the judges for the Chinese Musicians Exchange Association's recent selection of the top ten albums of 2004, said of pop musicians like Jolin Tsai and S.H.E. that "their style is merely crowd-pleasing pointlessness, they repeat themselves too much, and they have lost their creative spirit." Bao had previously run afoul of pop-star fandom when she told superstar A-Mei to "take a rest"; one of A-Mei's songs, "Fire", which was co-written with R&B artist Leehom Wang, had been the focus of plagiarism accusations and hence was not in the running for the year's top singles.

Leehom (pictured, on right), a Rochester, NY, born Chinese-American whom you may have seen in the McDonald's "I'm Lovin' It" campaign, was also the subject of plagiarism rumors when his new album was not selected for consideration. Bao Xiaosong confirmed the whispering by pointing to two songs in particular: according to the judge, "Let Go of Your Heart" resembles "This Love" by Maroon 5, and "A Simple Song" is similar to Ken Hirai's "Grandfather's Clock". Leehom, naturally, protests that his songs are entirely original creations. Sony Music, his company, questions whether there was a double standard used in the judging.

It turns out that the Japanese version of "Grandfather's Clock" that Leehom is alleged to have copied is not an original work, either. The popular English song, familiar to many Americans, was written in 1876 by Henry C. Work, and Ken Hirai in his version reproduces both the sentiment and the "tick-tocks" of the original lyrics. He even sings in English for the B-side.

So are the songs plagiarized? The Beijing News, in an odd confluence of traditional journalism, new media, and vague copyright legislation, invites readers to decide for themselves by printing URLs for mp3s of the four songs at the bottom of its coverage of the controversy. Danwei readers, too, are granted such a luxury; check below for links.

The article goes on to quote an anonymous industry insider who says that it is relatively common for stars to send people to look for new material by combing through "notched CDs" - remaindered albums that are written off in their home countries only to find a new life of questionable legality overseas. Since few people have ever heard the songs in their original versions, they make a perfect resource for borrowing inspiration.

But theft of musical ideas is notoriously hard to prove, and at times the media storm seems to be concerned more with whether an artist is truly creative than if anyone's rights have been infringed. "Amazing Grace" is in the public domain, yet when Joey Yung released her song "Tomorrow's Grace", which adapted the melody to accompany blandly inspirational Cantonese lyrics, she was accused of plagiarism. Of course, the winds of media opinion shift quickly - trumpeted recently was the selection of "Tomorrow's Grace" to serve as school song in three Hong Kong schools.

Leehom, though he may be knocked down a few pegs in the eyes of critics, will most likely emerge relatively unscathed. Nicholas Tse, who was accused of plagiarizing Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" in a song he wrote for Cecilia Cheung, hasn't suffered much. He admitted to having listened to the song, while denying copying it, and the case dragged on for a while before it was dropped. Fans don't seem to care much about plagiarism; a recent television talk-show appearance by the hot young author Guo Jingming saw much of the audience supporting him. One fan was quoted as saying that even if Guo did plagiarize, he would still be a genius because he plagiarized so well. One gets the feeling that righteous denunciations by Bao Xiaosong and others belong to a completely different world.

Links and Sources

Good netizens that we are here at Danwei, the song links below are to the wonderful MP3 search that Baidu offers, so as not to hammer any single server (it's not our fault if you all simply choose the first result). Clicking on the title in the first column will download an mp3 file, while the second column will open up a streaming window. Lyrics are in the third column, and if you're enthralled by what you hear, you can download a ring-tone from the fourth column.

  • Let Go of Your Heart 《放开你的心》 by Leehom vs. This Love by Maroon 5
  • A Simple Song 《一首简单的歌》 by Leehom vs. Grandfather's Clock 《大きな古时计》 by Ken Hirai 平井坚 (this is a direct link to a 1.2 MB file; here's a 6.6 MB file)
  • English translation of "Grandfather Clock" lyrics here
  • The Beijing News report is here, but the mp3 links are a bit munged
  • Interesting TimeAsia article on notched CDs here
  • Quote from Bao Xiaosong translated from Sohu
  • CRI story on Joey Yung's song here via Xinhuanet
  • Danwei's previous article on the Guo Jingming scandal here
There are currently 5 Comments for Importing Inspiration: Plagiarism in Pop Music.

Comments on Importing Inspiration: Plagiarism in Pop Music

Fang Kai Ni De Xin is not even close to plagarizing This Love. That judge was crazy. All I can tell is similar subject matter, but its pop music about love! How original can you get about Love!?

If anybody knows Leehom's passions for music and originality, they will know that he certainly didn't plagiarise! I agree with ThaiGuy, Fang Kai Ni De Xin doesn't sound like This Love at all! There are bound to be similarities in music, and I believe that plagiarising is when the songs sound VERY similar and close to identical. I wouldn't have linked the two songs if this article hadn't brought it up, because they hardly sound similar at all! And although this may not apply to the songs mentioned, I believe there is a thin line between plagiarising and using a song for inspiration. Plagiarism is mindless copying, using a song for inspiration is taking it and making it your own. I reckon this judge just had something against Leehom, or just wanted to stir things up ¬_¬

They are really wrong...
Fang Ki Ne De Xing was not even close to This Love of Maroon 5. This Love as actually much more similar to This Love by big bang but just the beat the rest is different.

and the other one: link link
i don't see any similarity. is it just me...? something must be wrong with the judges!

Of course it is imported. Look at one of China's biggest band's Joyside who were the subjects of the new Converse campaign and the film Wasted Orient (see link below for previous Danwei story). Purchase at by the way. Then you will see China's biggest Rock n' Roll band and their blatant rip-offs of groups like the Ramones, The Libertines, Johnny Thunders, The Germs, and maybe even the Doors and Velvet Underground.

Let's be frank, a great stack of music around China, is just a bunch of musical phrases lifted from western songs.

Ken Hirai's "Grandfather's Clock" that Leehom nicked parts from was written by Henry Clay Work in the mid 1800's.

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