Imitation may be flattering except when it’s classed as plagiarism

We all know that the most sincere form of flattery is imitation. Even a caricature – the exaggeration of a notable feature or the like, usually not meant to inspire admiration – is a sure indication that whoever is being caricatured is notable for much more than a weak chin or big ears. When someone writes a hit song, for instance, it’s inevitable that a lot of performers will sing it, and nobody will sound exactly like the original but the closer they come to it, usually the better their version is received.

Performers often try to emulate the style and sound of a group or individual who has been very successful, and in today’s complicated music industry that emulation is known as ‘tribute’ to the original performer(s). Which is all very well, until the original performers object on the grounds that imitators are infringing on copyright and/or trademark particulars – basically stealing their royalties.

Lately there has been a rash of lawsuits instigated by different entities, including the dance music company Ministry of Sound. That case involved a suit against music streaming company Spotify, and it’s complicated by the fact that Spotify had legal rights to stream Ministry of Sound play lists, but apparently not to play them in the same order as the Ministry play lists.

The issue comes down to whether compilation albums come under copyright law because of the ‘selection and arrangement’ – basically the order they’re played in – but there is more involved, according to Ministry’s chief executive Lohan Presencer. He says his organisation should be considered a ‘curator’ and they do much more than just put together play lists, market research being only part of it. Nobody, he says, should be able to just “cut and paste” what he considers intellectual property.

The copyright laws in the EU and in Britain are constantly being tweaked and almost re-invented to try and keep pace with all the new venues created by digital technology and countless personal devices employed by consumers. The issue really isn’t about what’s tribute and what’s not; the real issue is who has a right to be paid and how much. That debate will surely go on as long as art and entertainment continue to be presented by imitators of any sort.