In a genre like rock n’ roll, where "three chords and the truth" is often the standard, it's little surprise that, once in a while, a few of us might use the same three chords in the same order, or come up with a vocal melody to go with the chords that sounds remarkably similar to someone else's. In most cases these similarities are unintentional, and are simply the result of being subconsciously influenced by music we've heard many times on the radio, or while we're out and about in the world. As musicians, we often absorb and internalize artistic influences very deeply, such that we aren't always aware that we're being influenced while we're in the act of creating.
On the other hand, there is certainly no shortage of examples of deliberate, first-degree plagiarism in rock music. In many cases these are calculated attempts to score a hit by siphoning off a little musical magic from a song that lots of listeners are already familiar with, or it can be a way for a washed-up rocker to manufacture some product when the creative well has run dry. In other cases, the intent is less nefarious, with the plagiarizer intending the piece of music more as a loving homage to a favorite artist, rather than as a blatant ripoff. In any case, musical borrowing, as well as outright theft, is definitely a part of the fabric of rock n’ roll culture, and there are a number of interesting and enlightening cases that illustrate how even the most respected and popular artists can fall prey to plagiarism.
More than any other rock band in history, Led Zeppelin has been plagued with constant accusations of plagiarism. Despite the band's obvious originality and powerful influence on rock music, many of these accusations are very well founded. Criticisms of the band's practices have grown much louder and more insistent in recent years, as the Internet and new detection software have made the process of uncovering instances of musical plagiarism easier. In some cases, Zep has formally credited the originators for their contributions and paid them appropriately, but in other cases the band has been rather negligent. "Stairway to Heaven" is perhaps the most famous example. It is one of the most popular rock songs of all time, and rumors have long circulated about it being a direct ripoff of California band Spirit's tune "Taurus." In 2014, the controversy came to a head when Spirit bassist Mark Andes, and a trust acting on behalf of deceased Spirit guitarist Randy California, filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin. This suit has yet to reach a conclusion.
The total number of songs from the Led Zeppelin catalog that are in contention as being derived from the works of others is more than a dozen, perhaps around 20, depending on what source is consulted, with favorite Zep "inspirations" including Bukka White, Robert Johnson, and Willie Dixon, as well as Scottish folkie Bert Jansch, whose work was particularly influential on Jimmy Page.
In contrast to Led Zeppelin, who seem to have done a tremendous amount of uncredited musical borrowing, Tom Petty has, in recent years, been one of the most popular songwriters for other artists to borrow from. Considering his legacy as one of the most commercially and critically successful rock craftsmen of the past several decades, this is not particularly surprising. What is more surprising is that Petty is always really cool about it, telling Rolling Stone, in reference to a notable similarity between the Red Hot Chili Peppers hit "Dani California" and his own hit, "Last Dance with Mary Jane," “The truth is, I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry…"
In response to other obvious examples of artists, such as The Strokes and Sam Smith biting his style, Petty has maintained that he doesn't "believe in lawsuits much," and tends to give other musicians the benefit of the doubt when it comes to situations like these. Notably, Sam Smith did agree in an out-of-court settlement to give co-songwriting credits to Petty and ELO's Jeff Lynne on his 2014 hit "Stay With Me," which bore a striking resemblance to the 1989 Petty/Lynne song, "I Won't Back Down," a very successful single that appeared on Petty's Full Moon Fever. Petty was typically gracious about the incident, referring to it as a "musical accident," and stressing that he felt no ill will whatsoever towards Smith and his songwriting team. Thanks for always being classy, Tom.
Mr. Cash is unquestionably one of the most singular musical talents of the last century. He was a genius songwriter and storyteller, and his delivery was so convincing that when he sang "but I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die," one couldn't help but believe every word of it. Despite this legacy, even Cash was not immune to the temptation to borrow now and then. As it turns out, the famous "shot a man in Reno" line is one of the few original turns of phrase in what many consider his signature song, "Folsom Prison Blues." The tune is heavily based on a torch song written by composer Gordon Jenkins, called "Crescent City Blues," which is about a woman yearning to escape her lonely Midwestern life. Cash rearranged the perspective and lyrics a bit, gave it a rock n’ roll arrangement, and made the song his own, recording it for Sam Phillips's Sun Records in 1955. In Cash's defense, he came up with his version of the song while stationed in Germany with the Air Force, a time during which he says the idea of being a professional musician was the furthest thing from his mind. When he finally recorded it for Sun, he reportedly mentioned to his management that the song was not entirely his own, but Sam Phillips assured him there was no need to credit any other songwriters, and that he should have no fear of legal issues. This proved to be bad advice, however, and later in the ‘60s when "Folsom Prison Blues" was a certified hit, Cash and Jenkins settled the matter like true gentlemen, out of court, for a reported 75,000 dollars.
Men at Work
Australia has produced more than its fair share of awesome rock bands. Among these are Feedtime, AC/DC, The Saints, Radio Birdman, the Birthday Party, and of course, ‘80s radio stalwarts Men at Work. To many people, Australians included, Men at Work's "Down Under" might as well be the country's national anthem. It's a brilliant bit of new wave-ish pop-rock that really conjures the spirit of the place, its history, and its people, and unlike many hits from the ‘80s, it still holds up today. It's just a genuinely great song. Unfortunately, it has also created years of legal troubles and litigation for the working men who created it, due entirely to a very short flute riff based on a well-known Australian children's song called "Kookaburra." This song was written in 1932 by Marion Sinclair, and was widely believed to be in the public domain, but in fact the publishing rights had been transferred to a company called Larrikin Music after Sinclair's death. For 28 years after the release of "Down Under" nary a peep was made regarding Men at Work's use of this short theme from "Kookaburra," but after a question regarding it appeared on an ABC quiz show in 2008, Larrikin decided to sue the band for copyright infringement. Men at Work took the matter all the way to Australia's High Court, but in 2011 the band lost its final appeal, with the judge requiring that Larrikin receive five percent of royalties from the song from 2002 onward. This was, thankfully, considerably less than the 40 to 60 percent the company had originally asked for in its suit.
Rod Stewart's early work with The Jeff Beck Group and the Faces was incendiary and vital, and his voice was amongst the most distinctive in rock n’ roll. In the years following these early artistic high points he has nurtured a rather less-rocking solo career, built in large part on recording the music of other artists. He has flatly admitted that he does not feel himself to be a gifted songwriter, and finds interpreting the work of others to be far more rewarding. Fair enough, I suppose. Perhaps it is not so surprising then, that he has often come under scrutiny for borrowing heavily from the works of others when he has attempted to write his own songs. His 1978 disco crossover hit, "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?," nicked its chorus from a song called "Taj Mahal," by Brazilian musician Jorge Ben Jor. Stewart called the incident "unconscious plagiarism" and the matter was settled amicably out of court. Stewart then donated his royalties from the song to UNICEF in a rather classy and commendable maneuver. Another case involves the 1988 Stewart hit "Forever Young," which, incredibly enough, bites its lyrical arrangement and title from Bob Dylan's song of the exact same name. This seems like a rather egregious cock-up, but to Stewart's credit, he noticed the obvious similarities right away and contacted Dylan to sort the matter out, after which they mutually agreed to split Stewart's cut of the royalties. In 2015 Stewart came under fire again for recording a cover of "Corrina, Corrina," a Bo Carter song written in 1928, which has since become a blues standard, covered by artists ranging from Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, to Conor Oberst. Stewart's version appeared on his 2013 album Time, and was credited to "traditional," indicating that he and his people likely assumed that the song was in the public domain. This case has not been settled as of the time of this writing, and it is possible, due to the age of the song and its legacy as a popular blues standard, that Stewart will prevail.
We all have influences, and inevitably these influences will make themselves apparent in one way or another in our creative output. When our influences are properly internalized, filtered, and blended with our own voice and perspective, the result should strike an artful balance between the familiar and the unprecedented. Unfortunately, this process often goes astray, for a variety of reasons that range from pure greed, to artistic immaturity, lack of inspiration, or just plain old carelessness. These are the times when otherwise legitimate and creative musicians fall prey to plagiaristic tendencies. All songwriters and composers would do well to keep this in mind, and remember, if you're going to swipe part of a riff, or nick a bit of a lyric, give credit where credit's due. In the age of the Internet and iTunes, it's easier than ever to spot the plagiarizers and shut them down, or litigate them into the poorhouse.