Vietnamese pop tarnished by plagiarism suspicions

By Linh Do   April 29, 2020 | 12:58 am PT
Vietnamese pop tarnished by plagiarism suspicions
A screenshot from "Chan Ai" music video by Chau Dang Khoa. Photo courtesy of Chau Dang Khoa.
As the Vietnamese pop music scene grows, there is a corresponding increase in suspicions of plagiarism.

The latest one has been levied against singer AMEE’s musical video "Sao Anh Chua Ve" (Why Aren’t You Home Yet?) released in March for borrowing ideas from Taylor Swift’s 2014 hit "Blank Space".

Both clips feature a princess-like woman living in a castle with a Prince Charming, whom she suspects of cheating on her and consequently exacts revenge on.

AMEE’s heroine is a lot more feminine and childlike and lacks the complex psychological development of Taylor Swift’s. However, there are a few angry, jealous shots in the Vietnamese singer’s MV in which the heroine cries her eyes out, shouts, cuts her lover’s shirt, and slashes his portrait just like in "Blank Space".

Others that were suspected in recent times include singer Orange and composer Chau Dang Khoa’s song "Chan Ai" (True Love), whose prelude sounds similar to Elem3ntz’s song "Lier" posted on a popular music website last June; Hien Ho and Phuc Bo’s 2019 song "Can Xa" (We Need to Part) which strongly resembles South Korean singer Sunmi’s 2017 hit "Gashina"; and Min and Hoang Ton’s 2019 song "Vi Yeu Cu Dam Dau" (Because I Love You) which sounds like Barbadian singer Shontelle’s 2010 hit "Impossible".

Audiences nowadays have easy access to world music and use song finder apps and can make quick comparisons between originals and copycats.  

Though plagiarism is not a problem exclusively faced by young artists, the younger generation tends to be more vulnerable.

When faced with the suspicion, some have denied plagiarizing, some have admitted to it but many have remained silent or declined to comment. For instance, Chau Dang Khoa denied plagiarizing the South Korean band V4Men’s 2006 "Nuoc Mat" (T.E.A.R) for the chorus in his 2019 song "Tinh Nhan Oi!" (Hey Lover!), explaining that the two songs were basically different and any minor similarity might just be a coincidence.        
Plagiarizing can range from reusing others’ music without authorization or giving proper credit and copying ideas from others’ MVs to imitating choreography and style.

Since the 1990s, when Vietnam opened its market to the outside world, popular international music has been pouring in, giving rise to legally dubious adaptations of foreign, especially Chinese, songs.

Though the country signed the Berne Convention in 2004, plagiarism continued to rise alongside the growth of local pop in the 2000s, dubbed the genre’s "golden years".

In 2005 the Agency for Performing Arts under the then Ministry of Culture and Information announced a list of 70 songs suspected of plagiarism. They included works by popular musicians like Vo Thien Thanh, Quoc Bao and Phuong Uyen.

Some suspected cases have resulted in lawsuits. In 2018, for instance, the Vietnam Center for Protection of Music Copyright (VCPMC) sued music management company Sky Music for VND3.3 billion ($142,000) for violating the copyrights of 700 Vietnamese and foreign artists and 2,000 songs represented by VCPMC.
Sky Music has paid VND700 million ($30,000) as a preliminary step, and the trial is ongoing.   

When the table is turned

Though most suspected cases involve younger Vietnamese artists who steal from more established foreign names, the reverse can also be true.

Just six months after Tung’s 2018 MV "Chay Ngay Di" (Run Now) was criticized for stealing from South Korean rapper Mino’s 2016 MV "Body", the rapper was charged with plagiarizing from Tung’s 2017 MV "Lac Troi" (Drifting) for his MV, "Fiancé".

Both "Lac Troi" and "Fiancé" have a black and red background, a drunk white-haired king as the hero and a few court scenes featuring the king amid his musician concubines.

But when foreign artists plagiarize Vietnamese songs, fans and everybody concerned easily dismiss it as "coincidence."

This unequal game was especially marked in the high-profile case of Coldplay and Rihanna’s 2017 song "Princess of China" which was suspected of stealing from Vietnamese diva Ha Tran’s 2008 song "Ra Ngo Tung Kinh" (Chant in the Alley).

Typical of such incidents, the case did not lead to a lawsuit though both Tran Tien and Thanh Phuong, who composed and mixed "Ra Ngo Tung Kinh", said the introduction to "Princess of China" had an 80 percent resemblance to theirs.   

Other similar cases included Indian duo Sukriti and Prakriti Kakar’s MV "Sudhar Ja" whose intro was found to resemble the intro of singer Erik’s MV "Dung Co Mo" (Dream On), South Korean G-Dragon’s "Butterfly" which seemed to copy Do Bao’s "Nhung Khung Troi Khac" (Other Horizons), South Korean Jang Jae In and NaShow’s hit "Auditory Hallucination" whose prelude sounded similar to the prelude of Bao Tram’s "Chi Con Nhung Mua Nho" (Seasons of Nostalgia).

Vietnamese musicians have shared different views about plagiarism. Younger musicians tend to be more flexible. To DJ SlimV for instance, to judge whether somebody plagiarizes is complicated. A work has to be seen as a whole as well as in its details such as its melody and chord progression, and may require a jury to reach a conclusion.

As DJ SlimV sees it, there is no musical god who holds composing secrets and bestows them on earthly musicians. Rather, music is just a well-trodden path where musicians always learn from each other, he contends. Practice becomes theory, and when many compose in a similar style, they create a new genre or school.  

According to SlimV, it isn’t wrong to create one’s own song from a common chord progression or beat found on the Internet.  Many famous songs use the same chord progression such as Linkin Park’s "Numb", Timbaland’s "Apologize", Eminem’s "Love the Way You Lie" and Alan Walker’s "Faded".  

Similarly, songs that use the same beat can become different such as American-Jamaican rapper Sean Kingston’s "Beautiful Girl" and the late American singer Ben E. King’s R&B classic "Stand By Me".  

SlimV says because human memory operates based on patterns, modern music makes use of short repetitive cycles to make songs catchy and easy to remember. These short cycles plus the use of the same chord progressions tend to make pop songs sound similar, especially to laypeople’s ears.

Nguyen Van Chung, who composed such hits as "Vang Trang Khoc" (Crying Moon) and "Nhat Ky Cua Me" (Mother’s Diary), has a sterner outlook.

He says some young musicians often consciously steal popular songs or genres to garner quick fame and profits. 

Musician Nguyen Hai Phong also opposes plagiarism and says only uncreative and unprofessional people steal others’ works. Professional musicians who make money from their works must have 100 percent originality, and to discourage people from stealing, he suggested audiences should boycott copycats.

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