Hearing Double? Pushing the Boundaries of Musical Borrowing

When the lines between originality and copyright are blurred and viciously disputed. 

Led-Zeppelin

Written by Lilen Pautasso

It seems that one of the age-old controversies in the music industry is that of unintended “borrowing.”

In the modern age where music can be shared instantaneously, artists appear to be walking a fine line between inspiration and outright duplication. The digital age has made it easier to spot similarities and even faster to report on them.

One artist recently spotlighted more scrupulously for supposed “copycat” compositions are 70s rock legends, Led Zeppelin.

While the unlawful sampling axe has fallen on many artists, what’s interesting about the recent Zeppelin case is the song in question – “Stairway to Heaven.”  Not only is Stairway a song that led the band onto a path of insurmountable success, it also defined one of the most important eras in musical history.

The band bringing the 1971 rock opus into question is American prog rock quintet, Spirit. They claim that the defining riff at the beginning of “Stairway to Heaven” is, in fact, the defining riff in their song “Taurus” which was released a whole two years earlier.  In a recent interview with a French magazine Liberation, Page said, “This is ridiculous. I have no further comment on the subject.”

A regular occurrence in the industry, Zeppelin has been labelled as a band with “form in the area of musical borrowing.”  And let’s be perfectly clear – it’s not just them.  From Chuck Berry to Pearl Jam, Green Day to Coldplay song similarities have regularly been brought into question (great examples in video below).  But, at what point does one decide between coincidences or copycats?

According to the US Copyright Office, “it is permissible to use limited portions of a work [and] there are no legal rules permitting the use of…a certain number of musical notes or percentage of work”.

Given the often rigid nature of music, such as chord variety and basic rhythmic structures, artists are often left trying to identify unique ways of personalizing their music. One such way is the use of sampling. Artists use instantly recognizable tunes or musical patterns that attract listeners and lead them into new (but familiar) territory. Multitudes of modern artists have used this technique to attract fans and, simultaneously, achieve monetary reward (at the small cost of a licence).

But while listeners are fully aware that commercial gain is often chosen above originality in the case of sampling, it is not a legal (or cultural) issue. Copying, on the other hand, is.

To return to the question at hand, coincidences in music could be defined as an artist’s unintended or subliminal execution of compositions that draws upon their theoretical knowledge and historical experiences. Because nothing is created in a vacuum and we are all influenced by context and experience, it is can be easy for anyone to fall into the traps of copying ideas when, genuinely, there was no intention to do so.

The sheer fact that accusations about “Stairway to Heaven” did not surface for 43 years, demonstrates that historical context is extremely important. Most likely, people were already familiar with the auditory style of 70s rock and, as such, the similarity between “Stairway” and “Taurus” was not a blatant “rip-off” but more a side-effect of Jimmy Page’s historical and cultural context. 

While it’s not to say that some artists are guilty of subconscious plagiarism, in this case (and many others) it’s probably just a matter of “The Song Sounds (kind of) the Same.”

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Hearing Double? Pushing the Boundaries of Musical Borrowing
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When the lines between originality and copyright are blurred and viciously disputed.

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