We asked a leading expert in music plagiarism how to avoid a Led Zep-style lawsuit
Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are on trial at the moment, over the claim that they ‘stole’ the opening chords for their 1971 mega-hit Stairway to Heaven from Spirit’s song Taurus
Either that, or they got the idea from Mary Poppins.
Anyway, while this new case is attracting all the headlines, it’s safe to say that this is far from the first time a major artist has been sued over alleged music plagiarism.
With this in mind, we asked Tim English, expert and author of Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Stolen Melodies, Ripped-off Riffs, and the Secret History of Rock and Roll, for some insights into what constitutes music plagiarism, and what puts bands or singers at risk.
How is music plagiarism defined?
According to Tim, the legal system, at least in the US, applies a two-part test:
“Part one is ‘intrinsic similarity’: would a typical person think these two songs were substantially similar? Part two is it ‘extrinsic similarity’: a more objective standard wherein musicologists are brought in on each side seeking to show how the two songs are alike – or not – by examining their notes, chord progressions, time signatures, etc.
“This assumes the plaintive has proven that the person accused of infringing the copyright had ‘access’ to the song they are accused of stealing.”
How many notes does it take?
You might assume there would need to be some kind of minimum number for plagiarism to be proven. But apparently not.
“There is not a specified number of notes that need to be shown to have been copied,” says Tim.
Can it even just be a rhythm or a production style?
Fortunately, some good news for musicians and songwriters here. As Tim explains:
“Those aren’t protected by copyright. Neither are song titles.”
Is there a danger that even discussing your musical influences, as a band or singer, could lead to action at some point?
Here’s where it gets really interesting. And there’s some cautionary tales to heed too.
“Definitely!” says Tim. “Robin Thicke gave an interview to GQ magazine in which he stated that ‘Blurred Lines’ was his attempt to write a song in the mode of his ‘all-time favourite song’ – ‘Got to Give it Up’ by Marvin Gaye.
“That statement was used against him during the trial in which he and Pharrell were successfully sued by Marvin Gaye’s family.”
Even the most iconic of artists have fallen foul of such foot-in-mouth moments.
“Likewise, John Lennon gave an interview to Rolling Stone in 1970 when he described his songwriting technique as jamming on an earlier song and ‘parodizing’ it to come up with a song of his own.
“He claimed he used this method to write the Beatles song ‘Come Together’ by changing around Chuck Berry’s 1956 song ‘You Can’t Catch Me’. John was soon sued by the publisher of ‘You Can’t Catch Me’, the legendary Morris Levy (He is said to be the model on which the Sopranos character Hesh is based).
“John ended up recording three songs from Levy’s publishing catalogue to settle the case.”
So what’s the best way for musicians who might be influenced by some retro sounds to stay on the right side of the law?
Tim suggests some good old common sense here.
“It might be a good idea to play your songs for someone you trust, who could tell you if they too similar musically to an earlier work.”
Otherwise you might end up in court, like Plant and Page.
Main image: Led Zeppelin (Getty)