When is your song not your song?
TORONTO (CP) -- Sarah McLachlan is facing the music.
The darling of Lilith Fair has become tangled in the complex world of music copyright law, as she defends herself against a claim that former collaborator Darryl Neudorf was denied credit on several songs he says he helped her write 10 years ago.
The matter of who gets to take the creative credit for a pop song can be a tricky one, particularly when the recording process begins and dozens of people besides the artist get involved.
"It's partially the way composition of a song is defined," says musicologist Rob Bowman of York University.
"Historically, up until three years ago -- the law that still governs this case as it refers to an incident that happened 10 years ago -- all you could copyright were melody and lyrics."
In most cases, says Moe Berg, Pursuit of Happiness lead singer, guitarist, songwriter and now producer, it's clear where a song originated.
"The real essence of a song to me is the lyrics and the melody," says Berg.
"But when I produce records, I change the bands' songs around, sometimes dramatically. I always just consider that my job as producer.
"Sometimes it's just a matter of saying 'This part's too long, let's eliminate that part.' Sometimes it's 'Let's change this chord to that chord.' So when I say that, one could make the case to say I helped to write that song because it's different now. But that's not the intention of the band, to have me write their songs for them. So, in a way, I think it's unfair to say I helped write it."
Most lawsuits over creative authorship of a song deal with "stolen" material. An artist might hear a song that distinctly resembles -- or has like-sounding parts -- to one they wrote.
If they decide to go to court with their claim, it's up to the aggrieved party to prove the person they're suing had access to the original work and didn't independently create the same result.
Michael Jackson has successfully defended himself in four suits claiming copyright infringement, the latest a challenge by Italian singer Al Bano that Jackson's song Will You Be There was a rip-off of his song The Swans of Balaka.
Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder have faced similar accusations and in 1976 a lawsuit established that ex-Beatle George Harrison had unwittingly plagiarized the Chiffons' early-'60s hit He's So Fine on his No. 1 hit My Sweet Lord.
In 1994, singer Michael Bolton lost a lawsuit claiming he had stolen parts from the Isley Brother's 1966 hit Love is a Wonderful Thing.
McLachlan's case is slightly different.
Neudorf, a producer and former drummer with the band 54-40, claims he worked with McLachlan on her breakthrough album Touch in 1988, inspiring and co-writing four songs he was never credited with.
While McLachlan worked on the album, Neudorf was there in the room with her. Why he was there and what he did could make a difference, says Berg, although he emphasizes he doesn't know all the details of Neudorf's case.
"It's a real crucial point, the whole idea of where your contributions came in the creative process and what everyone thought was going on when you were making your contribution," says Berg.
"I think the crucial word here is intent -- if you write a song on a guitar and you come up with the lyrics and the melody and the basic chord structure and you bring it into the rehearsal studio and everyone plays along, they haven't written anything."
But there have been cases -- Berg himself has participated in one -- where a "song doctor" has been called in to rework songs at request of a band.
"Then I think you're basically helping create the song. You're saying 'I'll take this song and change this or that part of it and make it better.' In that case, bringing someone in to work on a song that's already either complete or half complete would, I think, legitimately be a co-write."
The modern reality of pop music is that many different aspects go into making a recorded performance, says Bowman.
"They include the groove . . . which is a lot of things, it's tempo, how rhythms are articulated -- are they being articulated just by the drummer or the various instruments, as in James Brown's band, that made great contributions towards articulating the groove -- and that's just one parameter.
"It's very complex. It's ultimately teamwork in any recording," Bowman says.
"The real question is, where does composition end? Is it that germ idea of lyrics and melody or is it all these other things that go into a finished recording, which is what people are buying?"