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Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ controversy: What to do if you’re accused of plagiarism

shake it off
Taylor Swift was recently accused of plagiarising the lyrics of a song by former girl group 3LW for her 2014 hit, “Shake It Off”. Source: Dimitrios Kambouris/AFP

Any fan of Taylor Swift would have surely heard of the “Shake It Off” lyric controversy, in which she was accused for allegedly plagiarising the lyrics of another song. 

The pop sensation is currently being sued by Sean Hall and Nathan Butler, who penned “Playas Gon’ Play” in 2000. The song, which was released by former girl group 3LW, contains similar lyrics to Swift’s 2014 hit, particularly in its chorus. 

Hall and Butler previously sued Swift in 2018, but were dismissed by the judge. The lawsuit was reopened last year. 

Swift has denied the claims, stating that she has “never heard of” the song or 3LW prior to the lawsuit. Instead, she clarified that she penned the lyrics to “Shake It Off” according to the everyday language she’d heard around her. 

“Prior to writing ‘Shake It Off’, I had heard the phrases ‘players gonna play’ and ‘haters gonna hate’ uttered countless times to express the idea that one can and should shrug off negativity,” she wrote in her declaration. “I drew on these commonly used player and hater phrases in creating the lyrics.”

What can students learn from Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ lawsuit?

Plagiarism is a serious offence. For artists like Swift, these could lead to lawsuits, which can take years to settle. Swift isn’t the first artist to be accused of musical plagiarism — pop giants like Ed Sheeran and Lana del Rey have faced lawsuits of a similar vein. 

Musical plagiarism is tricky in that there are not many resources that can prove a melody is an original form of work. Academic plagiarism, however, is far more straightforward. 

If you attend university, you’re likely to be familiar with Turnitin. This is an online service which checks for plagiarism in students’ essays. You submit your essay through the portal, which can give you an initial run-down of how much of your essay matches up with academic work found on the web. 

It will then give you a percentage match, with a lower score meaning a lower detection of plagiarism. This is a great way to check if you have referenced your work correctly or are not paraphrasing enough. 

You can use Turnitin for personal use, but most of the time, you’ll be using it to submit your completed work. Here, professors will be able to determine if you have written your essay yourself according to your percentage score. 

Musical plagiarism is not uncommon for influential pop artists. Source: Angela Weiss/AFP

What happens if I’m accused of plagiarism? 

Academics are usually incredibly strict about referencing, and for good reason. If you are ever found guilty of academic plagiarism, there can be serious consequences to your enrolment in your module — or in the university as a whole. In some cases, students can be expelled — which makes it doubly important to ensure you’re referencing your work correctly. 

However, what happens if you plagiarise a piece of work without realising it? Here are some steps you can take: 

Speak to your professor. The first thing you should do is approach your professor for a meeting. Ask them about what went wrong with your work. Where are the instances in which you plagiarised other texts? What are the next steps you can take? 

Most professors know that plagiarism — especially minor cases — is unintentional. This means that taking this step to learn from your mistakes is often enough, and will not have a major effect on your academic career. 

Be prepared for the possibility of having to redo your assignment, but know that this is a much less severe punishment than potential suspension or expulsion. 

Stay calm in the face of crisis. If you’re being accused of a much larger case of plagiarism, you might find that your work would be submitted to your university’s Plagiarism Committee for review.

This is a formal process in which a range of professors gather to review your case and determine if the accusation against your work is valid or not. 

If this happens, don’t panic and follow the process as best as you can. You might be asked to submit additional proof to show that you weren’t committing plagiarism, such as showing your draft work or explaining your research process.

Make sure to prepare these documents as best as you can and submit them accordingly. 

Usually, it doesn’t extend beyond this — but if it does, you might be entitled to seek legal advice. Speak to your university’s student support services if you encounter such issues.