Does it matter if Bob Dylan copies other people’s words and melodies?

By Tony Attwood

When it was suggested that Dylan had lifted descriptions of three novels from summaries available on the internet when making his Nobel speech there were quite a few people who made a bit of a fuss about this.

But of course Dylan and copyright issues are no strangers to each other.  Indeed Dylan has been accused of lifting melodies and lyrics from other people’s work for years and on this site we have often pointed to similarities between Bob’s work and those of others.

I don’t want to run the argument by giving examples about lifting lyrics, chord sequences or melodies; I’m happy to accept it happens.  Indeed I think that for anyone getting involved in the blues, it is inevitable.  The sequence of chords in what we know as the 12 bar blues is used in hundreds of thousands of songs, and no one calls is plagiarism or copying.

If you don’t believe me get someone with a guitar or keyboard to play this sequence:

E, E, E, E

A, A, E, E

B7, A, E, B7

There it is: the classic 12 bar blues.  Bob uses it lots of times.  So I want to ask the question, does such copying of chord sequences, lyrics or melodies matter?

In fact no sooner have I written that question, than I realise that it sub-divides into two questions: does it matter artistically, and does it matter legally?  And as soon as I start plotting my answers I find I need to go down two different routes: that of plagiarism, and that of copyright.

So already I am onto complicated ground, and that is never a clever place to be when talking about one of the creative arts – because in the creative arts there are no absolute judgements to be made.

Bob has explained himself several times with comments along the lines that if a member of his audience had been as much integrated into the music of his youth as Dylan was “You’d have written them [the songs] too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all I sang. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense.”

We also know that Bob entered the world of music in the 1960s having studied earlier folk music, which itself was taken from person to person – one composer re-using and modifying the work of someone who had come before him.  Indeed although I am no Woodie Guthrie expert I believe he too did the same.

So in this sense by being a re-user of old songs is just a continuation of a tradition.  “Masters of War” is based on Nottamun Town – there’s no denying it.  Those of us who have bothered to follow and study Dylan’s career as a composer know it and can see it time and again.

Thinking on this I found myself facing a number of questions.  You might have other questions to ask – and if so, if you have the time and inclination, please do write them down, ask them, and then answer them, and I’ll publish your commentary here.   But meanwhile let me try my approach.

Does it matter artistically if one uses earlier works?

It’s a personal judgement.  I recall when studying art, seeing works by various artists who had clearly copied the works of those who had gone before – but had then added something new.  And I remember the comparison with science – each new scientific discovery adds something new to the science of the past.  Occasionally there is someone or something utterly new, but it is rare.  Newton and Einstein in science.  Michelangelo in so many of the arts.

If art is seen in the same way as science, then the judgement is plain – if you are adding something new, then no, it doesn’t matter what you use to build your new masterpiece.

Let’s try an idea.

Supposing I write a piece of which the first line is “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” but which then travels off to a different conclusion and ends

I wish that for just one time I could stand inside your shoes
And just for that one moment you’d have my views
Yes, I wish that for just one time I could stand inside your shoes
I’d know why it is you always sing the blues

I’m trying (in a very trivial way because I haven’t worked on such a piece) to turn the work upside and reverse the proposition – that the singer wants to know what it is like to be the other person, rather than wishing the “other” could see himself through other people’s eyes.

Is that plagiarism?  It’s a trivial notion but it shows the problems we have.  In most arts, taking one artist’s vision and moving it on a step is not plagiarism.  And I think much of the time this is exactly what Dylan has done.  Nottamun Town is about a world not making sense.  Masters of War also has a world not making sense, but this time we know why it doesn’t make sense.  Because the munitions corporations have been allowed to flourish.

But all that is artistic flim flam.  It is still illegal.

This is where the plagiarism comes in, because plagiarism has nothing to do with illegality, but everything to do with being dishonest.  Normally the people who get worked up about it are academics; it is passing someone else’s work off as your own.

So Bob claims “Masters of War” is his, and doesn’t add “Music: traditional”.  There’s nothing illegal about using a very old English folk tune, but if Bob had wanted to exclude any plagiarism claim he’d have made himself clearer.

If I were to write a doctorate on Bob Dylan and wrote up an idea about how Dylan composed, which I had seen in a book on Dylan, and added no acknowledgement that the idea had come from another person’s book then yes, that would be plagiarism.

But it would not be copyright infringement because with just a few exceptions in most countries you can’t copyright ideas.   However there is still an element of dishonesty here – if one let’s people assume that this is one’s own idea when it is anything but.  

The trouble is, having been involved in writing approaching 500 articles on Bob Dylan I can’t actually remember where a lot of the ideas came from.  In fact I recently read a note about a Dylan song in Wikipedia and thought, “that’s worth quoting” and then looked at the source and found it was… me.  I’d forgotten I’d said it.  But at least I didn’t think it was rubbish when I read it again.

Copyright is different

Plagiarism is generally a matter for academics – especially when it comes to marking essays and theses.   Copyright is a matter for the courts.  Each country has its own copyright law, and often it is quite convoluted.   Because I have written a lot I know a fair bit about the copyright laws of the UK, and of the European Union, and have actually been to court to protect my copyright.  All sorts of things can be protected by copyright law – all the way from headlines on a website, and a database of names and addresses.

A five note jingle could be copyright.  So can a catch phrase. So can a radio programme.  But what we have to remember is that copyright has nothing to do with ideas – it covers the actual words used.  If it is ideas you want to protect then maybe you need a patent.  Or you need to return to the issue of plagiarism.

Breach of musical copyright

One of the most famous examples of a song found to be breaking a copyright was, “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison in 1970 which sounded rather like “He’s So Fine,” recorded in 1963 by the Chiffons.  The owners of “He’s so fine” sued citing multiple similarities.

The judge said, “it is perfectly obvious to the listener that in musical terms, the two songs are virtually identical.”  Now I didn’t find that comment by looking up the legal judgement – I copied it from another site that commented on the trial.  Breach of copyright?  I suspect not because it was a report of an actual event.

In its article on plagiarism Wikipedia says, “In 2012, when Bob Dylan was questioned over his alleged plagiarism of others music he responded, “It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back”.    Princeton University professor of American history Sean Wilentz defended Dylan’s appropriation of music stating “crediting bits and pieces of another’s work is scholarly tradition, not an artistic tradition”.  In 1998, B.B. King stated on the issue vis a vis music, “I don’t think anybody steals anything; all of us borrow.”

But there is another side to this.  I found this story when doing research for this piece.

In the early ’90s, he [Dylan] sued Hootie and the Blowfish because of lyrics used in their hit song ‘Only Wanna Be With You.’

“Rucker admits that it’s doubtful Dylan knew anything about the lawsuit. During an interview with the Dan Patrick Show, he said the singer’s management was aware of their use of lyrics from ‘Idiot Wind’ and had no problem with it. Once the song became a hit, they objected, and Hootie was forced to pay up handsomely.”

The lyrics in question were: “Said I shot a man named Gray / Took his wife to Italy / She inherited a million bucks / And when she died it came to me / I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”

There was also a claim made against Dylan’s work, “Dignity” which apparently was lost.  Brief details of that and other cases can be found here.

So let’s come back to the opening question: supposing Bob did use a precis of the famous novels that he says influenced his work through the years, quoting someone else’s work that he found on the internet – what then?

Here are the questions I am left with, and the very personal answers I find.

1:  Was Bob morally wrong to do it?   For me, I don’t really see it as a moral issue – but it would have been polite to have mentioned the sources.   Supposing one of those story summaries had been written by me – I would have been so honoured to have had Bob say, “here’s a summary from some English guy I’ve never heard of called Tony Attwood.”  I wouldn’t want any money – I’d dine off that for the rest of my life.

2: Was Bob breaking the law?   I can’t speak for US law, but if it were a work created in the UK then probably he was breaking the UK Copyright Act 1988.

3: So how much could be he sued for?   I am not a lawyer, but when I have protected my copyrights over the years the question for the court has always been, “what is your loss?”  So there is not some arbitrary punishment, but instead there is the question of how much I could have made from that copyright if the guilty party had actually paid.  It’s fairly easy to work out.  So I claim that, and all the court costs.

4: If he’d quoted me, would I have sued?  No, I think not.  Instead I would have given interviews and built a web site that said, “It was me that Bob quoted when he did his Nobel Prize speech.”  I would hopefully have got a few nice meals and a couple of free drinks at after dinner speeches out of that.  And I’d have changed the front page of this web site so that it said, “As quoted by Bob himself in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech,” in very large letters.

5: What about the lyrics we quote when reviewing songs on this site?     Regarding the lyrics, mostly we quote extracts from songs rather than the whole songs, and any full length quotes from songs that are on the site I am going back and removing.  If you spot one that is left, tell me and I’ll change it.  Extracts are normally allowable and since BobDylan.com has all the lyrics on line, that suggests they are recognising reality, that song lyrics are effectively freely exchanged.

6:  What about the links we put up to videos of Dylan performing live?   As far as I can see there is nothing in law prohibiting the filming of a performance.  The management of the theatre might say the sale of the ticket does not allow for this, but that is their rule, not a legal requirement.  Recordings of songs released on CD or LP are different – they are protected.  I try to remove any of these which are on the site.   But if the recording has not been released I don’t think it is a copyright infringement as long as we are not charging anyone to hear or watch.

So there we are: I’m trying to be consistent, although probably failing.  And Bob?  Well, as Hootie and the Blowfish found, Bob’s management will protect his copyright, as they are entitled to do in law.  But I doubt Bob even knew it was happening.

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.  A second index lists the articles under the poets and poetic themes cited – you can find that here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

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3 Responses to Does it matter if Bob Dylan copies other people’s words and melodies?

  1. Peter Faithfull says:

    “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it.”

    – Jim Jarmusch

  2. Peter Faithfull says:

    Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (2003/2004) was constructed almost entirely from scenes that quote or copy sequences fom other movies. See http://wiki.tarantino.info/index.php/Kill_Bill_References_Guide “Kill Bill” is one of the greatest movies ever made. All other Tarantino movies quote/copy other movies throughout as well.
    Why doesn’t anybody ask “Does it matter if Quentin Tarantino copies other people’s words and visuals?” Why is Bob Dylan singled out as if he has done something wrong? Robert Johnson quoted/copied other people’s records continously. Why doesn’t anybody ask “Does it matter if Robert Johnson copies other people’s works?” Or Picasso, or Steve Jobs, or the Rolling Stones, or Helmut Newton, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder? Or any great artist.

  3. Bill says:

    “If there’s an original thought out there, I could use it about now.”

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