A discussion of the use of samples, artwork and the instances where taking inspiration can be seen as going too far

With the release of her popular album Sour, Olivia Rodrigo has received many positive reactions to her latest material that is currently putting the singer at the front and centre of the pop stage. However, her recent releases have not been without speculation, gossip, and controversy.

The typical ‘guess who’ game journalists love to play with any new song release had listeners unpicking Rodrigo’s single Driver’s License, searching for the girl with the blonde hair that Olivia discusses in the song. But whilst these discussions and potential disputes remain fictional, Olivia Rodrigo faced very real backlash earlier this year with her album design for Sour.

Courtney Love called out the singer for supposedly copying Love’s 1994 Living through This album cover.

Courtney Love called out the singer for supposedly copying Love’s 1994 Living through This album cover.

Whilst plagiarism and using material without ownership is a serious discussion matter, Love’s comment about the similarity between the two album covers prompts a debate within the music space that has been ongoing for decades. In a world where we copy trends, use samples, and cover other people’s songs, the line between this and ‘copying’ becomes suspiciously blurred.

Time to make it a little clearer…

How many times have you been listening to a new single release, only to have a sense of familiarity settle over you as you ponder whether you had heard it before? The melody has a motif that you are certain you’ve heard or a guitar riff that you know you’ve tapped your foot along to already in previous years. The truth is, you might have heard it before, and hearing it again in a new song can be perfectly legal – often through the use of samples.

What are Samples?

Sampling began in the late 1970s and has been continuously called upon in the industry to evolve new music using the chart-toppers of the past. The process of sampling involves the reuse of sounds from another recording. Anything from a guitar riff, a drumbeat, or even a rhythm can be reused and manipulated to suit the style or genre of the new song if sampled through the appropriate copyright guidelines. For example, Beyoncé’s 2003 hit Crazy in Love featuring Jay-Z actually includes ‘multiple elements’ of Chi-Lites 1970 release Are You, My Woman? (Tell Me So). When listening to the iconic beginning of Crazy in Love, you can thank Chi-Lites for the distinct opening that makes the song identifiable in seconds to any Beyoncé fan about to hit the dancefloor. 

More than copying

Whilst some may see samples as ‘copying’ other artist’s material, it should be known that sampling is the legal side of ‘copying’- an important distinction.

Without the legality attached to samples that have been approved for use, copyright infringements would be endless and we wouldn’t be able to experience so many brilliant songs that we have access to today. As Olivia Rodrigo has experienced with her most recent album, giving credit where it is due whether it be through the use of approved sampling as Beyoncé and countless other artists have done, or adding artists to the writing credits of a new song; it is an important part of allowing the industry to thrive through sharing and collaborating.

Plagiarism allegations can taint the release of brilliant new songs and as a community, we are quick to jump to the defence of our favourite artists on social media, however, we often aren’t aware of the legal side to the accusations of ‘those songs sound the same or ‘that album cover looks so like that other one’.

So, next time you hear a song and think you’ve listened to something vaguely similar before, you’re probably not wrong!