Are chord progressions protected under copyright?
In most cases the harmony and chord progressions of a song are not going to be protected under copyright. This is because many chord progressions have been used for well over 95 years and would be considered Public Domain if someone were able to copyright them. Common progressions like the 12 Bar Blues, I-IV-vi-V, Em-G-D-A, etc. are so ubiquitous to certain genres that if someone were to claim ownership, they might be laughed out of the room.
When is it infringement to use someone else's harmonies?
While the chord progressions are typically not protected under copyright, there are always times when one can argue infringement. In a harmonic progression, there are individual melodic lines that create the chords as they go. This is referred to as "voice leading", which can be protected by copyright even if it's not the main melody, as long as it's distinct enough. Many of the iconic recordings we associate with certain chord progressions are iconic because of their unique voicing.
There have been many cases where people have gone to court over this type of use, especially when paired with other distinct musical elements (see Gray v. Perry or Williams v. Gaye). At Easy Song, we always have to advise that we're not lawyers so the only legal advice we can give is "anyone can argue anything in court". When using any part of someone else's copyrighted work to create your own derivative work, you should be aware that using any distinct part could be infringement. In those cases, we can help you get the necessary permission through our Custom Licensing Services.
copyright.gov - Copyright Basics
decibelpeak.com - Which Parts of a Song Can Be Copyrighted
local802afm.org - Can you copyright a chord progression?
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