How do you assign ownership of something intangible? This seems to be a recurring and expensive question frequently posed within the music industry, as more and more lawsuits debating the rights to popular songs have cropped up in recent years. From the much-publicized legal battle between Led Zeppelin and members of the group Spirit regarding the supposed plagiarization of “Stairway to Heaven” to Paul McCartney suing Sony for the rights to several Beatles songs, staking a claim to creative expression has become what approaches a cottage industry.
Most music industry lawsuits center around one contentious issue: “Who did what first?” At a glance, this may seem like a good way to determine who should claim ownership over a song—musical dibs in its simplest expression. But at this point in the vast timeline of musical expression, can anyone truly profess themselves to be an individual? In my humble opinion, no—there are no completely original plots, paintings, or songs in the world, especially not one so entirely inundated with readily accessible reference material. Everything you see and hear, no matter how supposedly new and fresh, is inherently derived from something which already exists.
This realization makes the legal battles which so often plague musicians in this day and age problematic. In the case of Led Zeppelin versus Spirit (officially Michael Skidmore vs. Led Zeppelin et al)—in case you aren’t aware, the trial specifically questions whether Zeppelin frontrunners Jimmy Paige and Robert Plant plagiarized from Spirit’s 1969 song “Taurus” on their own iconic track, “Stairway to Heaven”—legal representation for Zeppelin even referenced the inevitability of musical crossover, citing a medieval minstrel’s ballad which sounds eerily similar to the opening notes of “Stairway.” Plant, too, has acquiesced to the unavoidable, unintentional referencing of existing source material musicians face, saying, “In the nest of rock and rhythm and blues, there has always been cross-pollination” (via Rolling Stone).
Deciding who owns music is a tricky business—a delicate balancing act between imitation and emulation. There must be an allowance for taking notes from music history or the current musical climate while still avoiding out-and-out plagiarism. Having said that however, we cannot simply chock everything up to coincidence.
So what do we do to discourage outright theft in the music industry? Inevitably, one creates a sliding scale of “how similar is too similar?” Of course, the issue with such a scale is that it leaves quite a bit of room for subjective interpretation and, as a result, contention. In Zeppelin’s case, it appears that the originality of “Stairway to Heaven” remains upheld for now, although an appeal has been filed by the prosecution. Like nearly all legal battles over who owns the music, there is plenty of room for debate and little for compromise.