Bollywood music needs no introduction to copyright law; It has been hailed as both an innovator and a copycat laggard. As an example, see posts related to Bollywood and copyright by Shamnand and Prashant: here, here, and here. Bollywood’s most prolific composers (read highly successful) have often been in eye of controversy on the allegations of lifting/copying a composition from another’s composition/music. I contend that a case of simple lifting is far fetched not because there is no copying, but because the end result may be “different” than the original even if it is based on the original.
There is creativity involved even in copying from an original, and the end result is determined by the listener to whom a copy may sound better than the original. Theoretically, it is possible for an original score to have an infinite variations that are original, however, not all variations of a score are melodious. Ultimately, it may be the case that creative variations of an original score stand on a different pedestal than the original. Whether the variation is on a higher or lower pedestal than the original, depends on the listener. To reiterate, it may be the case that the variation seems to be more creative and thereby better than the original.
To determine whether a song is a variation of another, it is first necessary to separate the lyrics from the underlying score. The lyrics may be in a different language and yet have complete originality even if they are a literal translation.
To analyze the underlying score, a few concepts related to music are appropriate. Consider for example this online tutorial on a musical theme and it’s variations. With this as a background, it would be more appropriate to hear examples of an original score and a creative variation of the original. A popular nursery rhyme, twinkle twinkle little star is an appropriate example: the original theme and its creative variations are available here. Another example, is Mozart’s symphony number 40, available here, and one creative variation, Mambozart by Klazz Brothers, available here.
Given this background, it would be trite to label all variations as copies. However, that is not the case. The listener can tell the difference between a plain-vanilla copy, and a copy with additional bells and whistles. Therefore, in my opinion, a sliding scale test may be adopted to adjudge the extent of copy: One end has the simple copy to copy, and the other end has the copy that sounds totally different than the original. Therefore a vast majority of the creations may fall in a gray zone-neither a complete copy nor a full creative variation on an original.
And our successful music creators continue to do best what they do: inspired by an original to create new “originals”.