Is Bob Dylan a plagiarist? A consideration of the evidence.

By Tony Attwood

Tales of Bob Dylan having taken the music or lyrics for his songs from earlier published works, go back at least to Blowing in the Wind (allegedly taken from No More Auction Block), and have continued ever since to include elements of his Nobel Prize Winning speech, and most recently “False Prophets,” in relation to the 1954 song by Billy “The Kid” Emerson.

The songs have strong links, but within the Dylan song however there are some subtle changes – extending and curtailing the number of bars and beats in the bar – the sort of thing Dylan likes to do, and which changes the feel of the song even if you can’t quite understand what is going on.  Plus of course they are about totally different concepts.

Now Bob Dylan hasn’t exactly hidden the use of the original – the key is the same, the feel of the music is very similar, and the musical changes Dylan makes are ones that probably only a musician is going to recognise.  Plus if anyone needed an extra hint, Dylan has played songs by the composer of the original on Theme Time Radio Hour.

Dylan, in other words, is clearly stepping out and saying, “this is what influenced me – I’m not hiding anything.”

But if it doesn’t matter that Dylan uses part of the music of a blues song, in his own writing, what’s the difference between this, and the famous George Harrison case when he was ordered to pay $1.5m in damages for having taken the song “He’s So Fine” and turned it into “My Sweet Lord”?

The judge in the Harrison case said in his judgement, “Did Mr Harrison deliberately use the music of ‘He’s So Fine’? I do not believe he did so deliberately.  Nevertheless, it is clear that ‘My Sweet Lord’ is the very same song as ‘He’s So Fine’ with different words, and Harrison had access to ‘He’s So Fine.’ This is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.”

So yes, copying music and lyrics matters legally.  In the USA copyright on a composition lasts for 70 years from the end of the year in which the songwriter (or last-surviving songwriter if written by more than one) dies.  Billy “the Kid” Emerson is, I think, still alive, aged 92, so the song is still in copyright and will remain so until towards the end of the 21st century.

So copyright matters legally.  But does it matter morally?  Was Bob Dylan trying to hide the fact that he had borrowed the musical essence of the song, and put new lyrics to it?   I’d say probably not, or at least if he was it was a pretty poor way to go about it – to take a song from an artist he himself had promoted on his own radio programme.

Therefore we do need to ask, what is the issue here?  Are the people who complain that Bob Dylan is a plagiarist doing so because they want the law upheld, or because they want to see Bob Dylan brought low by being prosecuted, or because of some fundamental moral position that they are adopting?  And is some poor blues artist having money that is rightfully his, kept from him, by Bob Dylan?

Of course I can’t tell, because I can’t read minds, and I don’t know if any arrangement was made between Bob and Billy Emerson, but the way the point is put to me by people who don’t care for Dylan’s music very much, seems to suggest that they welcome any way they can find of knocking him.  For their commentaries seem to focus on a sudden interest in the moral principle of copyright, which they rarely consider at other times.

Copyright and plagiarism laws exist to ensure that the artist gets the just reward for his labour, just as the man employed to repair my garden fence got rewarded for his work when it blew down last year.  But we have to recognise that such laws have boundaries – you cannot claim any rights under any law for an idea.  The idea has to be put into practice for it to become something you can protect.  My garden fence man did not have to pay a royalty to the first person who thought of putting a wooden fence with vertical slats between each garden.

Copying songs and evolving them into something else has been the tradition in folk music and popular music from the earliest days.  Traditional songs and folk songs have appeared and re-appeared in many forms and they are not protected by copyright.

At which point we are left with an array of questions.  Where did Billy “the kid” Emerson get that riff?  Did it appear on a song before he used it?  Did Bob Dylan’s agency discuss the use of the riff with Mr Emerson’s representatives?  Is the use by Dylan similar enough to Mr Emerson’s to be a copyright infringement?

Now to that last point you might say, “They sound just the same”, and yes, even allowing for Bob’s fun and games with the length of the bar in odd places, the accompaniment Bob uses is very similar indeed to the original.   But the law doesn’t say “the accompaniment has to be the same” for a copyright case to be made.  In fact it doesn’t mention accompaniments at all.  It talks about “works”.

But there is another legal point, and that is that prior to 1 March 1989 any work created in the USA had to have a copyright note attached to it for its copyright to be something that could be claimed in law.  The 1954 song that Dylan has utilised most likely did not have such a copyright notice attached, at least I’ve not found one as I’ve gone a-searching.  And so is not registered for copyright.  In which case no copyright breach.

However it is also quite possible that Bob Dylan has made a financial arrangement with Mr Emerson to be able to use the accompaniment in his piece.  It is also possible that Bob contacted Mr Emerson, played him the new song, and Mr Emerson said, “Man, I can now die fulfilled.”

And here’s another point: is it possible to copyright the accompaniment?  Normally speaking accompaniments of songs are not written down at all – it is the chord sequence, the melody and the lyrics that are written down.  The accompaniment is made up in the studio.

Yet, it maybe argued, even if there is no legal case that could be brought against Dylan, surely for him to take the accompaniment and not put a note to this effect on the song, is wrong.  He ought to admit it!

Well, up to a point maybe.   One of the great problems with western music is that it only has 12 notes available.  Once you get past the 12 you are simply repeated the note an octave higher or lower.   Even more restrictive is the fact that in Western music not every note is available for use – the variety of notes enables us to be able to perform in different keys.  This song only uses six notes.

So is a riff  – a melody and a rhythm, protected by copyright?  Almost certainly not (I say “almost” because I am not aware of any case being fought out in court to give a definitive ruling on this).  The song “Making a liar out of me” which I was raving over in my last piece on this site, has a melody based around four notes.  Can you copyright that?  I can’t see how.

I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect that you need something as nailed-on similar as “My Sweet Lord” to “He’s So Fine” and full compliance with the law in terms of registering copyright for a case to stick.

“But he’s still copying,” claim those who like to knock Dylan – and I think that phrase is interesting because it reminds me of school days.  Children do copy when they are supposed not to, and they can be punished for it.  But they are copying exactly – the whole thing, (usually the answer) and that is what is wrong.

Let me try an example from another position.  There are some people who suggest that Christianity is a copied religion because it took elements from pre-Christian religions and beliefs and incorporated them into Christianity.  Those who deny this then might reply that “When one takes the time to study the similarities they suggest, it’s quickly apparent that the differences are actually much greater than any commonalities.

Now in that definition of copying it seems that percentages come into play – that to be copying over 50% has to be copied.  Or maybe just 30% – or was that 80% – I don’t know because the writer of that comment isn’t clear.  Dylan has copied some of the music, but the whole essence of the song including the melody, is different.

Which makes the point: how much copying is copying?  Is Dylan’s use of the accompaniment of a song enough to make it plagiarism?  Or is the accompaniment and some of the melody enough, even when the lyrics are completely different, (along with quite a bit of the melody?

The answer is, “who knows?”  For there are no rules.  From my modest knowledge of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988) of which, as a writer in the UK, I have some knowledge, no that is not enough to get a conviction.   And we may notice that the “My Sweet Lord” legal case went on for weeks before the judge gave a ruling, even though the two songs were incredibly close in the way they sounded, so we’re not going to resolve this in one little article.

Dylan, in his lyrics and musical accompaniment, uses references from music and literature, and he does this because that is the essence of his work.  He takes America’s past and re-works it.  And people point the finger.

But did anyone even raise an eyebrow in complaint when Manfred Mann sang “Hubble Bubble Toil and Trouble” in 1964 because the record label did not acknowledge Macbeth? (Actually the only complaint I think came from English teachers saying that the quote actually was, “Double double toil and trouble”.

My point is that in the arts, borrowing goes on all the time and always has done.  The work of genius is not measured in originality alone, but also in the taking of what is already there and going further.

To get worked up about Dylan taking musical phrases, lyrics and ideas is to misunderstand not Dylan, but the whole notion of art.  Art is about taking what we have in the world, and going a step further.  Only occasionally is a work of art utterly original.  One might nominate “Guernica” and “Like a Rolling Stone” for originality because they take the form to new places, but not the “Mona Lisa” because that was just another portrait.  But that lack of originality does not stop it being a work of utter genius.

To claim that Dylan copies other people’s work is not only to misunderstand what Dylan is doing in terms of his relationship with the past and the present, but to misunderstand the whole of western art, and (if it is mentioned) the copyright acts that exist in various countries.  It is like saying Bach’s “48” are copied because the Fugue in each case follows a strictly laid down format.

Dylan examines the world, be it a set of study guide notes on Moby Dick or the novels of Junichi Saga, and reworks what is there into his new context.  And indeed at least Junichi Saga had the decency to say he was honored that Dylan had used some of his lines.

Yes things can go too far.  Led Zepplin did go too far with “Whole Lotta Love” which really was awfully close to “You Need Love” by Willie Dixon and they settled out of court because it introduced nothing new.  The music was very similar and both were about love.  That is where there is a problem – not with a referential work such as False Prophet.

If Dylan’s False Prophet is compared with “If loving is believing” we see extensions and new ideas.    “You need love” and “Whole lotta love” are songs of the same message, genre, style, approach, affirmation and a dozen other things.

 

It is as if the people who are complaining here think that songwriting is a sort of writing by numbers.  Please allow me, as the composer of one song which has appeared on this site, to confirm.  It isn’t.  At least it isn’t when you try and create a song that might be worth hearing once or twice.

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13 Responses to Is Bob Dylan a plagiarist? A consideration of the evidence.

  1. Peter Higginson says:

    Bob Dylan and the ‘Plagiarism’ Issue Put to Bed?

    In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan gets very angry about the Plagiarism issue which has haunted him since the publication of Chronicles and the great work by internet sleuths in tracing some of the hidden sources of ‘his’ work.
    He claims that borrowing and quotation is part of ‘The Tradition’ and that only he gets blamed for doing it whilst others get away with it.
    This issue requires a bit of wisdom and honesty because it is central to the evaluation of Dylan as an artist and man. So let’s have a go.
    It is certainly true that ‘The Tradition’, by which we mean the history of oral folk song in previous centuries and the modern folk revival in Europe and America since 1959, does use quotation, allusion and even straight ‘theft’ as part of its modus operandi. Take for example Richard Thompson’s ‘Beeswing’- a song much lauded for its beauty and originality. Have a look at Martin Carthy’s first album with Dave Swarbrick and you find a Scottish accordion folk-tune called ‘Beeswing’. Now is that plagiarism by Richard, or a source of inspiration? Pure plagiarism would be where Thompson merely reproduced the tune as his own without elaborating or adding to the original. In fact, he elaborates a new story from the title and the tune is not derivative so here we might say is a case of an inspiring source, developed through the tradition. However it leaves a bit of a nasty taste that the title is not ‘original’ and this makes us think a bit less of Thompson. We feel the borrowing is a bit lazy and perhaps should have been acknowledged in a note on the album.
    In earlier centuries because there was no copyright in oral ballads, songs spread throughout the British Isles- ‘The Dark-Eyed Sailor’, for example, surfacing in dozens of variations with no apparent original author who was paid for the reproductions even when they found printed form through The Childe Ballads or in Cecil Sharpe House and so on. Many ballads begin ‘In the merry month of May’ but no-one got paid for originating the phrase and we just can’t be sure where all the ‘Lord and Lady/Gypsy’ plots came from for example or who should get a credit for them.
    A problem arises, as is well known however, when a modern recording artist claims a copyright fee for this work. The famous ‘Trad. Arr.’ by-line gives the money to the guys who ‘found’ the source and arranged it first eg The Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ and this has long been a source of controversy, particularly with Dylan’s Good As I Been to You where the complaint was that Dylan had stolen the very arrangements (Nic Jones, Paul Brady) that others had established in the first sense. We felt Bob had been dishonest. Liner notes acknowledging the arranger’s work would have been fair, but then Bob might have lost the smack of ‘originality’ he was trying to establish on that album. If he didn’t get ‘Arthur MacBride’ from a gypsy in New Orleans or even from Soodlum’s Popular Irish Ballads but nicked it from Paul Brady, we feel cheated. Bob may think he’s above the law of attribution but there is an ethic that you don’t steal original arrangements, and he broke it.
    I think it is perfectly acceptable to play with ‘Barbara Allen’ by creating a song called ‘Scarlet Town’ and using allusion and quotation to weave a new story. That is what T. S. Eliot did in The Waste Land and many others besides. But Eliot was kind enough to supply notes on his sources and the real scandal here is not that Bob developed ‘Barbara Allen’ but that he took Gillian Welch’s idea for ‘Scarlet Town’ and kind of warped it into a new song. Once again he stole an idea and an arrangement from a contemporary and this I find objectionable. The song ‘Tempest’ is also surely too close in melody and inspiration to The Carter Family’s ‘Titanic’, and we all know that the recent borrowings have sometimes been too flatly reproduced to be acceptable. It’s great to develop a source into a new form but where the borrowing suggests laziness I think it needs to be declared unacceptable. It’s not exactly plagiarism, but it isn’t quite developed enough to be declared original and Dylan is playing this borderline with increased frequency.
    Mitigation then. First, we don’t know if Gillian Welch gave Bob permission as a friend to use her version. She may even be delighted to be so acknowledged by the king of modern songwriting. The Carter family’s record sales may soar because of Bob’s allusion- another benefit he may perceive in using his fame to inspire sales for neglected artists. Did Paul Brady benefit from the lifting of his arrangement? Almost certainly. Did he mind? Perhaps he told Bob at a party that he didn’t and was actually chuffed. And the use of out of copyright author’s like Henry Timrod may also draw vast attention to his work and increase sales and academic attention etc. You have to decide whether the ‘plagiarism’ is worth it on balance.
    Finally though, if you do object to Bob’s liftings- what are you going to do about it? Some may sue. Some may get angry but find that when they write to Sony-Columbia they get no reply. Some may love him for his cheek. Some may say he has earned the right to take anything he likes because he has established his own originality beyond doubt- no-one is arguing that ‘Visions of Johanna’ was lifted from anywhere. Myself? I get angry when I see whole passages lifted from novelists with barely a word of change. That is just not on. With ‘Scarlet Town’ I can live with the adaptations because the song is still Dylanesque in essence and because trad/original fusions are always interesting as say with Fairport Convention’s version of ‘Matty Groves’ etc. But the issue is: are these artistic inspirations moving on the art-form or are they just lazy deceptions? I think Dylan’s case is just edging the latter and he is not being honest about this in his Rolling Stone rage.
    To re-iterate the point then: whatever you think about it, what are you going to do about it? Have you tried ringing Bob to discuss it? Don’t bother- he’s not there.

  2. Larry Fyffe says:

    I’m as mad as hell and am not going to take it anymore; the obvious solution is to destroy or burn all cave drawings, all documents and books, paintings, musical recordings, and so on, and zap all memories that human beings have;

    Dylan is even stealing from himself now.

    Then art wiil have come out of a pure vacuum as it should.

    That’s what I’m going to do about it!
    Dylan doesn’t realize who he is fooling with!

  3. richard gibson says:

    If anybody can relate No More Auction Block to the Blowin in the wind melody, then they must have incredibly astute hearing.

  4. TonyAttwood says:

    In his sleeve notes for The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991, John Bauldie wrote that Pete Seeger first identified the melody of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as an adaptation of the old African-American spiritual “No More Auction Block”

  5. claudio says:

    rod steward plagio forever young en letra y esencia de la cancion , husaron el mr jones, soplando en el viento se canta en la iglesias con otra letra y aqui en la argentina hay canciones que nacieron de canciones de dylan

  6. Larry fyffe says:

    Said to be of Canadian origin, sung by escaped slaves from the US.

  7. Larry fyffe says:

    It’s more to do with the sentiment expressed – the desire to be free:

    How many years must a mountain exist
    Before it is washed to the sea?
    No more, no more,
    No more auction block for me
    How many years must some people exist
    Before they’re allowed to be free?
    No more, no more
    No more auction block for me
    And how many times can a man turn his head
    And pretend he just doesn’t see?
    No more, no more
    No more auction block for me
    The answer, my friend , is blowing in the wind
    The answer is blowing in the wind
    No more, no more
    No more auction block for me

  8. TonyAttwood says:

    My Spanish is not very good but I think in English Claudio’s comment would say that Rod steward plagiarised “forever young” in terms of lyrics and essence of the song, they copied (?) Mr Jones, Blowing in the Wind is sung in the churches with other lyrics and here in Argentina there are songs that were born from Dylan songs.
    Can any readers help with a better translation?

  9. Larry fyffe says:

    ‘No More Auction Block’ with traces of its melody adapted to ‘Blowing In The Wind’ surely relates to the sentiment and lyrics of ‘Go Down Moses’
    (a traditional song rendered by Paul Robeson for one):

    When Israel was in Egypt’s land
    Let my people go
    Opressed so hard they could not stand
    Let my people go
    Go down Moses
    Way down in Egypt’s land
    Tell Old Pharaoh
    Let my people go

    Which relates to:

    And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told the Pharaoh
    Thus saith the Lord of Israel, “Let my people go
    That they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness”
    (Exodus 5: l)

  10. Fred Bals says:

    There’s a story, I think from one of the Uncut magazine articles on the ‘Love & Theft’ sessions, of Dylan’s factotum, Jeff Rosen, shouting “too close!” as Dylan ran through re-arrangements of various pieces of music he had lifted for that album.

    My personal issue about Dylan’s appropriations isn’t whether they’re legally or morally plagiarism, or whether he’s following a folk tradition or whether “everybody does it” is a valid argument, it’s his stubborn refusal to acknowledge his sources, whether those sources are from music, art, or literature. The defense that he makes no great effort to conceal those sources and that he’s pointing his fans to works that they’d otherwise be unaware of is specious. The average Dylan fan has no idea who Billy Emerson is, or know (or probably care) that Charles C. Evans, Hal Culpepper, and Norman Blake wrote the music (“Uncle John’s Bongos”) that would serve as the template for “Tweedle-Dee & Tweddle-Dum.” Would it really be that hard for Dylan to acknowledge those largely forgotten musicians in his liner notes?

    Fwiw, my research indicates that Dylan occasionally does make “financial arrangements” with the owners of the original music, although the acknowledgement is usually buried deeply in SESAC registrations. On his albums, it’s ALL SONGS BY BOB DYLAN, with the occasional outlier, such as acknowledging the litigious Mr. Dixon. But, usually, his reaction seems to be “Let `em sue us,” as he said when appropriating the cover art for “Knocked Out Loaded.”

  11. Marco Demel says:

    Hi Guys,
    Dylan is Love and Theft. And he loves a lot.
    And there is always a precedent, and like he said”Some people never get this and they have to stay in the dark.
    Is there any deeper respect possible when he for example drop Mary Lou in Dignity and False Prophet. Just one word opens up a whole story of struggling. Or in Scarlet Town or is it Early Roman Kings we are for half a minute in the Pink Floyd-Universe.
    There is no use in suing and even the Dylan-Camp got more relaxed, when somebody comes and ask, if he can use songs for this and for that. Best example is this “North Country”-play.
    So, let it be !

  12. You translated it quite well, Mr. Atkinson. However there is some trouble with what Claudio wrote – his fault – Steward (sic) and “husaron” (sic), it should be “usaron”, ‘used’ in English. And Claudio’s paragraph is not careful writing at all.

  13. TREVOR says:

    I think there is a difference between Dylan using an older songs melody as a template to adapt and develop it into something new ( for example Blowin In The Winds debt to to No Auction Block ) and simply using an older tune and arrangement for his own work and claiming it as your own.(Dylans “Tweedle Dee” and “Floater ” from LOVE AND THEFT springs to mind and now “False Prophet” ) As a Songwriter you should then acknowledge your sources.We all know that no music is totally original but their is a difference between creative adaptation and simply lifting a tune whole sale from another song

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