What the Led Zeppelin, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber plagiarism lawsuits say about the music industry

With some of the biggest names in pop and rock music facing legal accusations of plagiarism, we take a closer look at the phenomenon plaguing the music industry.

Ed Sheeran faces a lawsuit for more than $20 million over his hit Photograph. AP Photo
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Plagiarism is not a complicated concept. Simply defined, it’s “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”.

But as neat as the Oxford Dictionary’s summation may be, identifying what constitutes theft in the artistic sphere has historically proved a distinctly slippery proposition. When is coincidence in fact collusion? Who can say when unconscious inspiration becomes considered imitation?

These questions have taken on a more pertinent note following a rash of high-profile legal challenges against some of the biggest names in pop and rock.

This month, Ed Sheeran was served a more than US$20 million (Dh73.5m) lawsuit claiming his hit Photograph plagiarised The X Factor-winner Matt Cardle's 2012 single Amazing. Justin Bieber is reportedly being sued by White Hinterland, who reckons last year's Sorry lifts from her Ring the Bell, with producer Skrillex listed as co-defendant.

Last week Led Zeppelin was cleared of ripping off the intro of their 1971 rock epic Stairway to Heaven from Spirit, an American band that supported the British behemoths three years before the song was released.

The battle was clouded by arguments of faded memories, musical conventions and happy coincidences. Perhaps the only thing clear from each case is that in 2016, musical plagiarism has become big business.

Such claims are by no means a modern phenomenon – acts from The Beatles and The Beach Boys onwards have all fallen foul – but past settlements were more often made out of court.

In 1971, Johnny Cash paid $75,000 to Gordon Jenkins for ripping off 1955’s Folsom Prison Blues from Jenkins’s Crescent City Blues.

Led Zeppelin also does have some history when it comes to using arrangements from other artists.

At the height of their 1970s success, Led Zeppelin became almost experts at paying off the raft of blues musicians who pointed out musical smash and grabs, with Sonny Boy ­Williamson and Willie Dixon among the beneficiaries.

That said, when it comes to music, more so than narrative art – which comes complete with plot-lines and themes – declaring plagiarism can be particularly perilous.

Songwriters often characterise their craft akin to divine inspiration – “I’m just the postman,” Bob Dylan famously crowed – and it’s not entirely implausible that two minds are delivered the same package.

The oft-quoted idea that if you gave a group of monkeys a typewriter, eventually they would "by chance" replicate one of Shakespeare's works, seems far-fetched. But hand primates a glockenspiel and the chances of them knocking out the three-note riff that drives (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, or those timeless four notes that begin Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, seems more plausible.

According to US copyright, claimants in cases of musical plagiarism must prove both “access” – that the alleged plagiariser heard the stolen source – and musical “similarity”.

In the case of Led Zeppelin, songwriter Jimmy Page’s defence relied on his claim that he never heard Spirit’s Taurus, despite the fact that its parent album was found in the guitarist’s (admittedly vast) record collection.

Assuming they follow Zeppelin to court, Sheeran and Bieber will likely have to rest their defence on musical arguments, as ­denying subliminal familiarity with two recent radio hits could prove implausible. Whether or not the identified melodic resemblance was a conscious conceit could prove irrelevant.

The spark to this recent wildfire of new cases can be traced to last year’s ruling that forced Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay Marvin Gaye’s estate $7.4m – later reduced to $5.3m – for plagiarising the 2013 hit, Blurred Lines, from the Motown singer.

The considerable controversy created was not just over the size of the claim, but its very nature. The two tracks are undeniably similar – but melodically, Gaye’s Got to Give it Up has little identical notation with Blurred Lines. What it shared was a feel, a vibe, a groove. Thicke and Pharrell’s effort can be best described as a Gaye tribute, or parody.

And that should send a chill down the spine of any songwriter working today.

Throughout musical history, performers have borrowed from one another – the folk and blues traditions evolved through a proliferation of familiar chord progressions and melodic turns.

Got to Give it Up is regarded as a key influence on the emergence of disco – and one cannot copyright the sound of a genre.

How serious this threat is to the progress of music rests largely on the outcome of these upcoming litigations. But one thing clearer than any of the cloudy musical arguments is that we have little to gain from songwriters living in fear.