Legendary jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny once said that Brazilian pop music “might have been the last in the world to have a sophisticated harmony.” Metheny, the winner of 20 Grammy Awards, is one of many international artists to have fallen in love with the Brazilian music of the 1970s and 1980s and incorporated the sound into his own songs. Another example is Greg Kurstin, an award-winning music producer who studied Música Popular Brasileira (or Brazilian Popular Music) in New York, and now works with superstars such as Paul McCartney, Pink and Adele. Now Kurstin and Adele have been accused of plagiarism: singer-songwriter Toninho Geraes, who has written hits for the likes of Zeca Pagodinho, Diogo Nogueira and Martinho da Vila, among others, has claimed that the producer and the British singer almost completely copied the melody of his song Mulheres (recorded by Martinho da Vila in 1995) on the single Million Years Ago, which was released in 2015 and featured on Adele’s album 25.
This dispute over intellectual property coincides with the pre-launch of Adele’s new album following a six-year hiatus. The singer, whose new album 30 is due for release on November 19, felt compelled to mute comments from fans on social media after being inundated with messages from Brazilians on her publications and live transmissions asking her to respond to the accusations of plagiarism. For the time being, both Adele and Kurstin have made no public comment on the matter.
I only wish to protect my musical legacyBrazilian singer-songwriter Toninho Geraes
“This silence is an evasive strategy,” says Fredímio Biasotto Trotta, Toninho Geraes’s lawyer, who last February sent two extrajudicial notifications to Adele, the British record label XL Recording, Sony Music and Kurstin. In a press release, Sony stated “the matter is currently in the hands of XL Recordings [which owns the rights to the record] and of Adele herself,” explaining that it had only been responsible for the distribution of the single in Brazil and that its contract had expired. XL Recording, for its part, has not made any statement. “We are gathering evidence to file a claim in the British courts, where judges tend to be meticulous in cases like this,” says Trotta, who has been working in the industry for three decades and has been a musician since the age of 11.
What has not yet been revealed, however, is the amount of compensation the lawsuit is seeking. The documents from Trotta ask Adele and Kurstin to provide details of the income derived from album sales of 25 and the profit generated by Million Years Ago on streaming platforms. Martinho da Vila’s album Tá Delícia, Tá Gostoso, on which the single Mulheres is included, was a hit in Brazil and sold 1.5 million copies, according to data from Columbia Records. Toninho Geraes, however, does not want to take legal action and will settle for his name appearing on the writing credits for Million Years Ago, his lawyer has stated. “I only wish to protect my musical legacy,” Geraes says.
Geraes found out about the surprising similarity between the two songs through Misael da Hora, the son of Rildo Hora, who wrote the arrangement for Mulheres and who has worked with the greatest Brazilian samba composers. “He told me about it, thinking it was an authorized version in English, and I was stunned,” says Geraes. The expert analysis requested by his lawyer identified 88 identical, similar or slightly varying bars in the two songs, as well as identical parts in the intro, chorus and endings.
“Brazilian music is very well known, it is a reference point and it is studied wildly everywhere in the world, especially that of the 1960 and 1970s, but generally all of the melodies up to the beginning of the 1990s,” says Trotta. Perhaps one of the most famous cases in this sense was that of Brazilian singer Jorge Ben Jor, who in 1979 sought compensation from British rock singer Rod Stewart for plagiarism of his song Taj Mahal (released five years earlier) in the chorus of the star’s hit single Da You Think I’m Sexy? Stewart publicly admitted the plagiarism in 2012, describing it as “overstepping the boundary” in his autobiography.
In keeping with Trotta’s claim, bossa nova musician and multi-instrumentalist Edu Lobo filed at least two international claims for plagiarism of songs he wrote in the 1960s: one against a French songwriter whose name was never revealed and another, in 1994, against Japanese songwriting trio Tsukasa Yamaguchi, Eiji Takehana and Yasuhiro Nara, who copied his song Ponteio Numa Outra and rebaptized it as Beatitude on their compilation album Multidirection. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
More recently, the heirs of songwriter Luiz Bonfá, who died in 2001, accused Belgian-Australian artist Gotye of plagiarizing a small part of Bonfá's instrumental Seville on the hit single Somebody That I Used to Know, which won two Grammy Awards for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Record of the Year. Gotye reached an agreement to credit Bonfá as a co-writer of the song, a credit that has even been registered with the Australian Copyright Council.
Lawyer Caio Mariano, a specialist in copyright and intellectual property, says though that cases like this are not that common. “At the end of the day, there are also coincidences in music, so it is necessary to prove mens rea – the will and the intention to copy something – to be able to accuse someone of plagiarism. Something that happens a lot is the unauthorized use of musicians such as Tim Maia and Arthur Verocai, among others, who have a rich body of work. In the genesis of genres like hip-hop and rap, for example, there was the culture of sampling in songs. The problems arise when it is done without proper authorization, without worrying about whether it is a violation of copyright,” Mariano explains.
On the dispute between Toninho Geraes and Adele, Mariano opines: “There is a very striking similarity in the harmony, tempo and structure of the songs.” The lawyer points out that Brazilian legislation follows international copyright conventions and that cases such as this one tend to be resolved out of court, via agreements and negotiations. It remains to be seen if this is the path Adele and Kurstin choose when they decide to break their silence.