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Music law consequences of the recently alleged Adele plagiarism news story

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After breaking so many records that she made the music industry press itself sound like a broken record, Adele has now received some publicity that may at first appear unwelcome. Her track ‘Million Years Ago’ is the subject of accusations from fans of the late 1980s Kurdish recording artist, Ahmet Kaya, who feel that the UK singer-songwriter has borrowed from and possibly even plagiarised Ahmet Kaya’s track “Acilara Tutunmak”. A quick listen to the two tracks suggests that any alleged intellectual property ‘theft’ would be far more difficult to prove than the well-publicised case between Robin Thicke / Pharell Williams and the Estate of Marvin Gaye, where a US Court found that Thicke and Williams had infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s track ‘Got to Give It Up’. As numerous critics and fans alike have already pointed out, there are similarities between the Adele/Kaya songs, but these are not complex musical arrangements to the same extent as the Blurred Lines case. There has been, as yet, no response from Adele’s team and I would not be surprised if none is issued, save for a short, succinct denial.

However, whoever now owns the rights in Acilara Tutunmak may feel they have a strong case and decide to take legal action against Adele (and presumably Greg Kurstin, who has a co-songwriting credit on the track). Whether or not they do, or would have any real prospect of success, remains to be seen. But the publicity the case would receive may well justify any costs incurred by potentially increasing sales of Ahmet Kaya’s catalogue. And here lies the biggest copyright/IP issue for the music business post-Blurred Lines: will artists who can point to similarities between their music and other successful commercial tracks use a potential copyright infringement case as a marketing strategy to reinvigorate interest / sales of their music? Artists would be, effectively, parasites on the success of others, which would turn the music industry into a minefield of potential disputes. With the amount of music in existence and the increasing challenges to create something that is truly original, is this something that could become commonplace in the music business of the future? 

An essential part of music’s evolution is for it to be retrospective, to allow artists to use their influences to create something new. Although some argue that there is a fine line between plagiarism and influence, true theft of copyright is usually clear to even the untrained ear and now, to a great extent, scientifically provable.  Nevertheless bands and artists should clarify their position with a music lawyer if they are worried that another musician could claim they have ‘borrowed’ from them illegally. 

In the case of Acilara Tutunmak, even if Adele, Greg Kurstin or any of her writing team had heard or played Kaya’s track before writing Million Years Ago, to prove it had been plagiarised would require more than circumstantial evidence. It is likely therefore that, for Adele, the perfectly executed campaign for 25 will juggernaut on. Not that the album needed any more publicity, but in case anyone had forgotten about 25, this story adds to the column inches already racked up. Moreover, as 25 is still not on a streaming platform at the time of writing, then the only way for a curious music fan to (legally) compare the two tracks is to purchase ‘Million Years Ago’ or the album itself. Things could be worse…