On May 21, the popular K-pop band BTS released their latest single, Butter. However, despite the popularity of the track and solid reviews for it, the release itself has been anything but buttery smooth.
The reason is that the track has faced not one, but two separate allegations of plagiarism, with many fans and critics alike wondering if the band may have run afoul of copyright law.
Fortunately for the band, the stories have done little to detract from the song’s success. However, among fans of the band, both of these stories have become points for debate and one of them may be a legal issue down the road.
So, the best way to look at this case is to separate the two allegations and try to understand them as two distinct potential issues.
Once we do that, a clearer picture begins to form.
The BTS/Towering Catastrophe Controversy
The first controversy came to light on July 19 as fans of the 1992 Japanese Nintendo Game Monster in my Pocket, noticed that the BTS song sounded very similar to the game track Towering Catastrophe, which was used on the fourth level of the game.
The composer of Towering Catastrophe, Nakamura Kojo, took to his personal blog and addressed the issue. He said he doesn’t mind the similarities between the two songs and believes the similarities to be coincidental. However, while he wrote the track, he is not the ultimate rightsholder as Konami, the game’s developer, owns the rights to the work.
However, that seems unlikely to happen. Konami doesn’t seem likely to file a lawsuit against one of the largest bands in the world over a fairly obscure song in a nearly 30-year-old video game.
In the meantime, this has left fans to engage in a heated debate over the similarities. That debate doesn’t seem likely to die down any time soon.
The BTS/Luca Debonaire Controversy
The second allegation to come to light was accusations that Butter had many similarities to a track by Dutch artist Luca Debonaire. Specifically, the accusations were that the melody of Butter matched the 2020 Luca song You Got Me Down.
However, this turned out to be more of a licensing than a traditional plagiarism issue. Though fans were right that the two songs had significant similarities, Luca announced that he had purchased the top line from producer Sebastian Garcia, who is credited as a songwriter on Butter.
BTS’ label, Big Hit Music, announced that there were no copyright issues with the songwriters for Butter and that all the songwriters for the track have confirmed as such.
The most likely cause for this similarity was simply Garcia using either the same or a very similar melody to the one he licensed to Luca. The question then becomes “Under what terms did Luca acquire the track?” If he was promised exclusivity over it, then this could be an issue, especially for Garcia.
However, if he didn’t and simply acquired a non-exclusive license, then there may not be much legally that Luca or anyone else can do.
Luca, for his part, has said he is trying to get in touch with BTS or someone that manages them. However, unless he was promised exclusivity, there likely isn’t much he can do about it as the rightsholder of that beat is listed as one of the songwriters on Butter.
What Does it Mean
To be clear, I am not a musicologist nor am I an expert in musical plagiarism. My practice is primarily in text-based works.
That said, the similarities are very easy to hear. The question is whether those similarities are coincidence and, if they are not, if they rise to the level of copyright infringement.
Looking at the first case, if it were being tried in the United States, Konami would have a large challenge ahead of it. Konami would have to prove that BTS copied their track, that the copied elements were unique to their track (meaning no prior examples of that beat) and that those elements that were copied qualify for copyright protection and that the use wasn’t a fair use.
Though the laws in Korea and Japan are different, many of those same obstacles remain. This makes the case, at best, a long shot and likely not worth anyone’s time.
With the second case, the real question is what license did Luca obtain when purchasing the track? Though Luca admits to buying it, we don’t know what the terms of that purchase were. If there was a promise of exclusivity, then there definitely could be an issue, especially for Garcia. But if not, as unethical as it may seem to reuse a beat like that, it may not be unlawful.
In the end, the main takeaway from these cases is just how messy composing for a major pop act like BTS can be. There are seven credited songwriters, three producers and four engineers. The number of people that worked on this track is mind-boggling.
With this type of production, similarities are going to come up. The challenge is determining what is plagiarism and what is not.
This case, more than any other, shows how messy it can be to write and produce a song like this. With so many people working on it, so much effort in polishing and refining the track and so much money at stake, it’s no surprise that it shares similarities with other works.
Simply put, as the body of recorded music continues to grow, cases of similarity, both perceived and real, are going to grow with it. The more music we have, the harder it becomes to write something that feels completely original.
However, none of that changes the fact that BTS’ fans are passionate and will debate these kinds of issues until the end of time. While I personally don’t think it’s likely that BTS plagiarized a nearly 30-year-old Nintendo game, it’s easy to see why that narrative is attracting attention.
Ultimately, that is most likely a case of two songs with very similar beats, something that the original composer agrees with.
As for the second, that is, most likely, a licensing issue and not a plagiarism one. There seems to be little doubt that Garcia wrote the melody in question and that he is properly credited, the issue is whether he had exclusively licensed it to someone else before.
Unfortunately, disputes like that one are common in music and BTS is far from the first to face that kind of issue.
All in all, it’s two very mundane stories that do more to highlight the complicated nature of music creation and licensing than it does any kind of plagiarism. But that doesn’t make them any less fascinating, especially for fans of the band.
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