Who is the copyrightowner of a specific music recording? Select a specific music release andinvestigate who owns its copyright. Is it the composer, publisher a differententity, or a mix of these? Copyright law hasexisted in in some form since the early 18th Century, where it initiallyapplied only to the publishing of books. Since then it has developed into awide ranging, complex piece of legislation; the complexity of such has openedup new discussions on the ownership of copyright. Coupled with decades of recycledideas and inspiration, it can become difficult to ascertain the rightful ownerof a particular copyright with certainty. I’ll be assessing who should trulyown the copyright for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, and why they may not have controlover the anthem today, eventually putting into question the morality of some copyrightcases.
In 1997 The Verve released ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, which achievedinternational success. The lyrics and most of the music was written by RichardAshcroft, the band’s frontman. However, its most recognisable part, thestrings, were taken from Andrew Goldman’s symphonic recording of “The LastTime”, which was written by David Whitaker as a tribute to the Rolling Stonessong of the same title.
(Sound On Sound, 2001) After the songgained international popularity, the former stones manager Allen Klein (theoriginal copyright owner of “The Last Time”) started a lawsuit which ended upbeing settled out of court, leaving the Stones with 100% of the royalties andthe copyright. The Verve and Richard Ashcroft lost all control of what theybelieved was their song, in one of the most controversial copyright claims ofall time. Originally, the Stonesallowed Ashcroft to use a set 5 note pattern from ‘The Last Time’.
However, afterthe song was completed, Klein realised the Verve had used an extra note, making6 in total. With the album ready for release and ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ alreadycompleted, Klein gave The Verve an ultimatum: forfeit all the song writing royaltiesand publishing rights to ABKCO (The Stones publisher), and give all the writerscredit to Jagger and Richards of The Stones, or they could take the song offthe shelves completely. (Runtagh, 2016) Naturally, RichardAshcroft and The Verve had to give in, and lost all rights to the song.
Ashcrofthad no choice in the matter, as the 1988 Copyright Designs and Patents Act statesthat “The owner of thecopyright in a work of any description has the exclusive right to do the actsspecified in Chapter II”. Chapter II outlines that the owner of the copyrighthas the sole rights to copy that work. (Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988). The Stones were able toforce The Verve’s hand because they had the copyright to the sample they used.However, none of the Stones wrote or performed the string sample that Ashcroftused originally: It was written in tribute to the Stones by a completely differententity, David Whittaker, and performed and recorded by Andrew Goldman’sorchestra. The entire case was based on a copyright for something that merelyresembled a Stones song, and ironically, the portion sampled was written byWhitaker, who was never credited for any of the recordings. (Runtagh, 2016) Inmy opinion, this case tells a story far deeper than a simple copyrightinfringement.
Furthermore, after the case, Klein (who initially started theplagiarism claim) had a phone call with music photographer Mick Rock, where “itwas obvious to him that Allen was enjoying himself. “I was very bad today,” hesaid.” (Goodman, 2015) Klein clearly sawthat his actions fell into a moral grey area of copyright law. Even though The Verve usedmusic that wasn’t even written by The Stones, they lost everything from it andmade The Stones millions.
The crux of the question is whether Ashcroft truly plagiarisedThe Stones work, and what factors can lead to this unfair distribution ofwriting credit and royalties. In short, it’s obvious that The Verve stole themusic for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ from the Andrew Oldman orchestra. The demotape for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ consisted of Ashcroft’s lyrics, over the top ofthe Oldman/Whitaker cover. When listening to the cover, Ashcroft’s demo tapeand ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ in succession it becomes apparent just how muchAshcroft lifted from the orchestral version. However, when comparing the Oldman/Whitakercover and the Stones original, the two pieces are incredibly different. (The Verve Live, 2008) While the Oldman/Whitakercover borrows certain motifs from the original, it seems closer to a looseinterpretation/tribute than a cut and paste cover. When considering that thewriter of the cover, Whitaker, never received any credit for the tribute nor ‘BittersweetSymphony’, it begins to paint a picture of a case held for financial gain, ratherthan the protection of an individual’s intellectual property (namely Whitakers),as copyright law is intended.
Interestingly, theoriginal Stones song wasn’t even an original creation of theirs. Clearly liftedfrom an earlier song by ‘The Staple Singers’, the similarities are obvious whenthe two are compared. The Stones turned ‘This May Be the Last Time’ into ‘TheLast Time’, with more or less the same lyrics, but were never questioned forit, despite the obvious plagiarism. (The Verve Live, 2008) This could show thatin 1965, the year ‘The Last Time’ was released, people were far more acceptingof sharing and using other people’s musical ideas than they are today, and lessfocused on using legislation for monetary gain. The Stones developed an ideathat already existed, rather than flat out plagiarised it, much like The Vervedid. The story is one thatseems almost to perfectly ridiculous to be true. In 1955, a gospel group called”The Staple Singers” recorded a traditional folk song called “This May be theLast Time”.
In 1965, The Stones copied it and made a very similar song called ‘TheLast Time”. Soon after, Andrew Oldman wanted to orchestrate some Stones songs,and commissioned David Whitaker, and English composer and arranger to write atribute to “The Last Time”. Richard Ashcroft developed this music into one ofthe most successful British anthems of the 20th century.