Take a sad song and make it better: Led Zeppelin, Bach, and music plagiarism

Last week, one of the most important legal cases of music plagiarism in recent years came to an end when a jury in Los Angeles cleared British musicians Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (authors of the iconic Stairway to Heaven) of stealing the opening riff of one of rock’s most famous and enduring anthems.

The lawsuit had come from the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California), guitarist of the  LA-based psychedelic band Spirit, on the grounds that Led Zeppelin had used the intro of Taurus (an instrumental composition by Spirit from 1967) for the opening of Stairway to Heaven (released in 1971), pointing at certain similarities between the two passages.

Drawing by Mona Shafer Edwards

A courtroom illustration from the recent trial showing Jimmy Page (right) and Robert Plant (left) / drawing by Mona Shafer Edwards

It is not the first time that Led Zeppelin have been accused of lifting musical passages; other famous examples include claims on behalf of blues masters such as Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon (whose names have subsequently appeared on song credits on some of the band’s reissues), or American songwriter Jake Holmes, whose Dazed and Confused was covered by Led Zeppelin in their debut album without credit (a lawsuit by Holmes was eventually settled out of court in 2012).

News of the latest lawsuit against Led Zeppelin brought to mind some older instances of alleged music plagiarism, such as the copyright infringement suit against George Harrison for his hit song My Sweet Lord in the 1970s (where he was found guilty of ¨subconscious¨plagiarism) or the debate around the similarities between Hotel California and We Used To Know by British rockers Jethro Tull.

As Ian Anderson puts it, ¨it’s not plagiarism, it´s just the same chord sequence… it’s difficult to find a chord sequence that hasn’t been used.¨ Now that’s a very interesting remark because it appears that musical ¨borrowings¨ have actually been around as long as music itself. As  a matter of fact, even Bach himself lifted entire passages or melodies from other composers, a practice that was not uncommon or unknown to musicians before (as well as after) him.

It was only with the advent of modern notions such as intellectual property and copyright infringement that such borrowings came to be considered as violations rather than simply loans. Musicians, not unlike scientists, make advances and breakthroughs by building on previous discoveries. Isaac Newton’s famous maxim “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” might as well have come from Bach or, for that matter, Led Zeppelin.

As with all arts, there can be no parthenogenesis in music. Picasso’s ¨good artists copy, great artists steal¨ remains as valid today for visual artists as for music composers. Building on a previously existing body of work should not be reprehensible; on the contrary, it is necessary, if not inevitable. The important thing is not to avoid borrowing from past masters, but to successfully use and mold the old knowledge into something new that has its own value and significance.

Perhaps the essential difference between imitation and originality is best captured by Ernest Hemingway, who once said: “In any art you’re allowed to steal anything if you can make it better.”

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