Editorial: Deconstructing the misconceptions of “plagiarism”

Here at ESC Views, we’ve got ourselves into the routine of posting articles which are easily categorised into series’ and themes. Sometimes, however, our ideas don’t quite fit into the neat little boxes at the top of our page, and occasions of that kind call for free-standing editorials such as this one! Today, I’ll be engaging in a little myth-busting; for as the national final season carries on, and Eurovision fans worldwide exchange opinion on the selected songs, there’s one frequently misunderstood word which I’ve seen hurled at several 2014 entries, and which I’d like to clear the air on.

That word, of course: “plagiarism”.

"Amazing" is not a carbon copy of "Euphoria", period.
“Amazing” is not a carbon copy of “Euphoria”, period.

Before I get going, I’d like to direct you to the illuminating article on plagiarism that Ewan Spence wrote for ESC Insight around this time last year, in the wake of the ridiculous accusations thrown at Cascada’s “Glorious” – have a read here, well worth five minutes of your time. I hope I’m not treading on any toes here in revisiting the topic, I’ve simply seen history repeating itself again this year, and I hope my alternative approach will shed a little more light on this concept and its implications.

It happens every year: a song will be selected for Eurovision, and a sub-faction of the fans who aren’t majorly keen on said song will set about digging for any possible reason to overturn the decision. Once voting inconsistencies have been ruled out, they have a tendency to highlight similarities to a pre-existing recording, and jump to the conclusion that it must therefore be “plagiarised” and therefore disqualified from the competition. This is, in fact, not the case in 99% of cases.

Plagiarism:

Outside the boundaries of academia and the music industry, “plagiarism” isn’t a term that many use in quotidian life; so it’s hardly surprising that so many people seem to have ‘gotten the wrong end of the stick’, as it were. Plagiarism, in general terms, can be defined as the theft of another person’s intellectual property and the subsequent passing off of those ideas as one’s own. In a musical context, however, I feel the point is best delineated through exemplification:

Here’s a song by Svetlana Loboda (somebody you’ve doubtless heard of); “Ne Macho”, which was released in 2008.

And here’s “Nisam Laka, Maco”, a song by Serbian singer Dunja Ilic (someone you’ve likely not heard of), which was released in 2010 under the guise of being an ‘original’ song…

As I’m sure you can tell, these two are in fact the same song, with modified lyrics. And this is the catch. Ilic released “Nisam Laka, Maco” as though it were an original composition. This is what plagiarism is. The song is the intellectual property of Svetlana and her creative team, and Dunja Ilic’s presentation of her version as an original is the act that constitutes plagiarism. It’s not the same as performing an ‘official’ cover version, and acknowledging it as such – as is the case with most “X Factor” winning singles – no, this is what a plagiarised song sounds like.

Think of it as a metaphorical “copy and paste” of another artist’s work. In an essay for example, if you use someone else’s ideas, you must acknowledge it as such. Obtain permission, quote them, reference their original work, make sure your readers are aware that what you’re putting together is not an exclusive product of your own individual thought. In musical circles, this acknowledgement will usually come in the form of licensing from the original author, and an agreement of royalties to be derived from any profit incurred by the cover version.

I happen to be rather familiar with the concept, for it is a common phenomenon within both the Chalga and Turbofolk musical spheres of which I am so enamoured with. “Song A” is composed and released by a singer from one country, and then a matter of months later somebody else from another country will pop up with a “new hit” (Song B), which in actual fact transpires to be an almost-identical reincarnation of song A, but in a different language, with minor tweaks to the arrangement.

Here’s an example: Andrea, a Bulgarian chalga singer released “Izlaji Me” in 2009.

… and then the following song “Pice Za Drugare” was included on Serbian turbofolk singer Anabela Djogani’s début album a year later…

… What do you know, ey! Same song. And this kind of thing happens a hell of a lot in the Eastern European pop-folk scene. I’m not sure whether copyright laws are virtually non-existent over there or something, but not only does this happen a lot, they get away with it too. Which only leads to a further snowballing of the problem. Below, if you’re interested in hearing further examples, is a list of paired songs which are cast-iron examples of true plagiarism:

Despina Vandi – “Ipofero” – Greece – 2001 [Original]
Jelena Karleusa – “Jos Te Volim” – Serbia – 2002 [Plagiarised]

Sinan Hoxha – “Gili Gili” – Albania – 2013 [Original]
Cvetelina Yaneva – “Za Gospodina” – Bulgaria – 2013 [Plagiarised]

Dragana Mirkovic – “Sve Bih Dala Da Si Tu” – Serbia – 2008 [Original]
Djena – “Vsichko Davam Da Si Tuk” – Bulgaria – 2010 [Plagiarised]

Anna Vissi – “To Parelthon Mou” – Greece – 2008 [Original]
Rumina – “Ne Celuvam Nepoznati” – Bulgaria – 2010 [Plagiarised]

Galena – “Znam Diagnozata” – Bulgaria – 2008 [Original]
Funky G – “Kafana Na Balkanu” – Serbia – 2008 [Plagiarised]

Variants on a theme?

So: we’re clarified what constitutes true plagiarism, all clear on that one, yes? But what about those other sonic similarities which pop up in music, those ‘plagiaristic red herrings’, as it were? Pop-f0lk can help us out once more here.

Have a listen to this song: “Ot Tozi Moment” released by Gergana late last year:

… and compare it to this one “Rejim Neprilichna”, released a matter of weeks later by Preslava:

Apart from the fact that they’re both chalga songs, they share an extremely similar instrumentation and structure. Were “Rejim Neprilichna” to have been a Eurovision entry, I can guarantee that certain people would have been quick to accuse Preslava of plagiarising Gergana’s earlier song, right? But this is where we must highlight the distinction between formula and plagiarism.

Not all chalga music sounds exactly like this; there are definite sub-genres – which, admittedly, are more easily identifiable to the sad bastards like me who obsess over Eastern European pop-folk – but even so, these two songs spawned a further two hits “Da I Kaja Li” by Tatiana, and “Nito Minuta” by Yanica. The connection? They all sound extremely similar. But they’re not plagiarised, because no matter how many similarities they share, they all have their own individual melody, lyrical content and chord progression. They are all individual songs in their own right, but they are all variants on a theme. This kind of chalga song was extremely popular at the end of last year, which is the direct cause of so many singers releasing their own takes on the electronic-folk model.

Let’s take one final example, which I can guarantee will resonate more closely with you. Here’s Belgian superstar Stromae’s 2013 summer hit “Papaoutai”:

And here’s the song “Moustache” by TwinTwin. Which just happens to be the French Eurovision entry for 2014.

You’ll notice that I haven’t explicitly mentioned Eurovision entries at all here until now… and that is the point I’m getting at. I’ve been talking about plagiarism and I haven’t been able to reference a Eurovision entry in any great detail… because plagiarism is not a phenomenon which genuinely occurs at the contest. (and before you say, yes I am aware of the issues surrounding both Sweden 2001 and Germany 1982… but for an institution which has seen the exposition of nearly 1300 songs in nearly sixty years, a grand total of two substantiated plagiarism concerns hardly constitutes a lingering problem, right? Thank you.)

Eurovision is a contest which is specifically tailored as a platform for NEW songs. And by “new”, I don’t mean Dunja Ilic’s interpretation of the word “new”. I mean ACTUALLY new. Original.

No matter how much you think “Moustache” is a rip-off of “Papaoutai”, it’s not. Yep, they’re similar alright, but TwinTwin’s song merely emulates a style; a commercially successful theme. It’s a logical move more than anything else. Same goes for Estonia. No matter how much you think Tanja’s “Amazing” is a carbon copy of “Euphoria”… I hate to break it to you, but it’s just not. Yes, it’s not the most ground-breaking piece of music ever created, but it is *original* in the official sense of the word. Same goes for Malta. For me, I will never be able to listen to “Coming Home” without being reminded of Gary Barlow’s “Let Me Go”… but the connection between the two songs isn’t even in the same postcode as plagiarism. Similarity in music happens, and unless it’s like the songs covered in the first section above, you can’t say there’s any plagiarism involved, because it simply isn’t true.

We’ve all done it at one point or other, and I’m not pointing the finger at anyone. It’s an easy mistake to make if you don’t properly understand what you’re implying with your use of the term. Hopefully this article has helped you out a little, and if just one fan thinks twice before throwing out an accusation of plagiarism in future, then it was definitely worth my while.

Ewan’s article clarified the exact nature of the phenomenon, and provided cast-iron evidence as to why similarities in music occur. Our article tonight has hopefully expanded on the theme, presented the concept in a logical, non-judgemental and understandable way and given everyone specific points of reference for future consideration. These accusations really are a problem within the fan circle of the contest, but if we make an effort to employ a little more common sense, we can eradicate the majority of the hysteria. Who’s with me?

Your Views: 

What are your views on the issue of plagiarism at ESC?
What are your views on the issue of plagiarism at ESC?

Nick van Lith from the Netherlands: Eurovision is a competition where no song is allowed to have existed in any form before entering the competition. That’s why I personally had a problem with one of the songs in last year’s German national final, Ave Maris Stella. That rule however gets a lot of attention from fans who all want to make sure that a song fits the criteria EBU set. That then also gets moved to the negative side, when people decide to randomly keep attacking songs and their composers for being ‘plagiarised’. It’s absolute ridiculous nonsense. Thomas G:son, who reacted on the Glorious/Euphoria case last year, was oh so right: 10,000s of songs have the same courses, because pop music lives by the same rules. You cannot avoid songs sounding the same and you will never avoid it.
The issue with fans going crazy for plagiarism must have started back in 2001, when Sweden’s entry indeed was too similar to Belgium’s 1996 entry. Ever since, plagiarism has been a favourite topic of many fans, often without even making sense. Just think of the K-Otic/Emmelie de Forest case… That absolutely made zero sense and if I may use this space to call for it: If you’re a fan, stop blatantly accusing songs of plagiarism. It doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t make anyone happy and it ruins the fun.

We would usually quote a number of fans but Nick’s response is so awesomely detailed that we almost don’t have to! However, we are really interested to hear what you have to say on this little debate: are accusations of plagiarism really a problem within the Eurovision fan circle? How do you think we can stop it? Are the examples listed here helpful in clarifying this minefield? Please do let us know below, we’d love to hear from you!

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