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Haven't I Heard This Song Before?

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Over the last couple of weeks, the sounds of pop's biggest hits have been distractingly familiar. Almost as soon as it hit the Internet, "Roar," the brand new smash by Katy Perry, was accused of sounding an awful lot like the recent song "Brave," by Sara Bareilles. A legal dispute now surrounds the No. 1 song in the country, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," over its similarity to "Got to Give It Up," the 1977 hit by Marvin Gaye.

Today on All Things Considered, NPR's Neda Ulaby talks with NPR Music pop critic Ann Powers about the history of pop sound-alikes. "Songwriters have borrowed from each other, played off each other. People have claimed the right to songs in the public domain," Ann says. "This is part of the art of pop."

But not all borrowing is equal. This got us thinking about the different ways musicians act as mimics.

Sometimes intellectual property laws are involved. If a musician takes a song she loves and incorporates all or part of the actual recording into a new song, that's sampling. Releasing the new song requires the permission of whoever owns the original recording and, often, a financial agreement. (You can trace our current understanding of the copyright laws around sampling to a 1991 suit by Gilbert O'Sullivan against Biz Markie for the use of O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" in Biz's song "Alone Again.")

If a deal can't be reached, or the sound of the original recording isn't quite right, the musician can re-record an element of the song she loves, say a little snippet of melody or a particular drum pattern. This is called interpolation. The re-created element can be a nearly exact replica or just vaguely similar. Sometimes, an interpolation can be so close that it's hard to tell if it's any different at all — think of Vanilla Ice's famous denial that "Ice Ice Baby" was sampled directly from Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure." If it's really a new performance, permission is not needed, but the writer of the original song gets credit and, if there are royalties, a share of the money. (Think of cover songs as extended interpolations.)

Then there's the shady, mysterious land that occupies the area between what we'll call "inspiration" and "coincidence." Here's where things get contentious. Pop music history is full of tributes, riffs and echoes that make us turn to the radio and go: "Haven't I heard this song before?" Sometimes, it turns out, we have.

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