By Mirae Heo
Within the last two decades, interpolation has become extremely popular in the music industry. Interpolation is an audio technique where an artist re-records an element of a song of another artist—such as the lyrics or a guitar melody—and incorporates it into their own song. The artist still has to give credit to the writer of the song that was interpolated and negotiate fees, but it is generally cheaper than sampling a song.
Some well-known examples of interpolation are Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” which interpolated parts of the melody from Bonnie Tyler’s “If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man)” and Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” which interpolated parts of the melody and lyrics from Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise”.
The best way to go about interpolating a song is to reach out to an artist or songwriter before using snippets of their song in order to get permission and negotiate royalties. This way, an artist can avoid potential lawsuits. Taylor Swift did this when she reached out to the band, Right Said Fred, before she released “Look What You Made Me Do” in 2017. Right Said Fred received an offer from Swift to interpolate their song “I’m Too Sexy.” Because Swift reached out for permission before her song was released, both parties were able to negotiate and come to an agreement on the percentage that Right Said Fred would receive from Swift’s song.
When credit is retroactively given, however, legal problems may arise. After Sam Smith released their song “Stay With Me” in 2014, rock singer Tom Petty’s legal team contacted Smith’s legal team due to the similarities between Smith’s song and Petty’s song, “I Won’t Back Down.” Fortunately, the two parties were able to amicably negotiate the matter. Smith claimed that they had never heard Petty’s song before, but nevertheless resolved the matter by crediting Petty and Jeff Lynne, the co-writer of “I Won’t Back Down,” for interpolating their song.
Unfortunately, many issues of potential copyright infringement are not as easily resolved. Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and the estate of Marvin Gaye fought a nearly five-year lawsuit trying to determine whether Thicke and Williams’ song, “Blurred Lines,” infringed the copyright of Gaye’s song, “Got to Give it Up.” It was a war of artistic integrity; with Thicke and Williams contending that they did not need to copy someone else’s work in order to create a hit song, and the Gaye family arguing that Marvin Gaye deserved credit for his hard work. Williams admitted that the “feel” of the two songs were similar, but that a “feel” was not entitled to copyright protection. The issue came to a close when the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part the district court’s decision in favor of the Gaye family and awarded the family nearly $5 million.
Interpolation is a great way to incorporate past hit songs into brand new masterpieces. Many popular artists of 2020 and 2021 have done just that. Ava Max’s 2020 single, “Kings & Queens,” which interpolated the chorus melody of “If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man),” reached number thirteen on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Doja Cat’s 2021 single “Kiss Me More,” which interpolated Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” peaked at number two on the same Billboard chart.
Ava Max and Doja Cat credited the writers of the interpolated songs prior to their songs’ release, avoiding liability for potential copyright claims, but a recent album of Olivia Rodrigo came under fire from listeners who spotted similarities between some of Rodrigo’s songs and other songs. Hayley Williams and Josh Farro, member and former member of the band Paramore, were listed as co-writers of Rodrigo’s song, “Good 4 U,” after fans noticed heavy similarities between it and Paramore’s “Misery Business.” Rodrigo’s song, “Brutal,” was also criticized for plagiarizing Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up.” However, Costello came to her defense, saying that “It’s how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy.” Unlike Thicke and Williams, Rodrigo came out legally unscathed. But, who is to say whether she will be so lucky a second time around?
 Max Foreman, How Music Copyright Works: Sampling, Covers, Mixtapes & Fair Use, Pro Audio Files (Mar. 22, 2018), https://theproaudiofiles.com/music-copyright.
 WhoSampled, https://www.whosampled.com/sample/90037/Bon-Jovi-You-Give-Love-a-Bad-Name-Bonnie-Tyler-If-You-Were-a-Woman-(And-I-Was-a-Man) (last visited Sept. 24, 2021).
 WhoSampled, https://www.whosampled.com/sample/114/Coolio-L.V.-Gangsta%27s-Paradise-Stevie-Wonder-Pastime-Paradise (last visited Sept. 24, 2021).
 Kory Grow, Right Said Fred on Taylor Swift’s ‘Cynical’ ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, RollingStone (August 25, 2017, 6:24 PM), https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/right-said-fred-on-taylor-swifts-cynical-look-what-you-made-me-do-205808.
 Katie Shonk, Copyright Negotiation: In Dealmaking with Tom Petty, Sam Smith Backs Down, Program on Negotiation | Harvard Law School (Feb. 7, 2017), https://www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/dealmaking-daily/in-dealmaking-with-tom-petty-sam-smith-backs-down.
 Althea Legaspi, ‘Blurred Lines’ Copyright Suit Against Robin Thicke, Pharrell Ends in $5M Judgment, RollingStone (Dec. 13, 2018, 12:47 AM), https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/robin-thicke-pharrell-williams-blurred-lines-copyright-suit-final-5-million-dollar-judgment-768508.
 Eriq Gardner, Robin Thicke Sues to Protect ‘Blurred Lines’ from Marvin Gaye’s Family (Exclusive), The Hollywood Reporter (Aug. 15, 2013, 6:13 PM), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/robin-thicke-sues-protect-blurred-607492.
 Kory Grow, Robin Thicke, Pharrell Lose Multi-Million Dollar ‘Blurred Lines’ Lawsuit, RollingStone (Mar. 10, 2015, 9:42 PM), https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/robin-thicke-pharrell-lose-multi-million-dollar-blurred-lines-lawsuit-35975.
 Gardner, supra note 11.
 Williams v. Gaye, 895 F.3d 1106 (9th Cir. 2018).
 Chart History: Ava Max, Billboard, https://www.billboard.com/music/Ava-Max/chart-history/HSI (last visited Sept. 24, 2021).
 Chart History: Doja Cat, Billboard, https://www.billboard.com/music/Doja-Cat/chart-history/HSI (last visited Sept. 24, 2021).
 Ethan Millman, ‘No Shelf Life Now’: The Big Business of Interpolating Old Songs for New Hits, RollingStone (Sept. 7, 2021, 2:53 PM), https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/features/olivia-rodrigo-doja-cat-interpolation-music-1220580.
 Billy Edwards (@biiilyedwards), Twitter (June 28, 2021, 9:16 AM), https://twitter.com/biiilyedwards/status/1409500964516777992.
 Elvis Costello (@ElvisCostello), Twitter (June 28, 2021, 1:42 PM), https://twitter.com/ElvisCostello/status/1409567943520931847.
Image Source: https://www.audacy.com/music/lou-ottens-inventor-of-the-audio-cassette-tape-dies-at-94