Inspiration Or Appropriation?


Where do you draw the line between inspiration and appropriation when it comes to musical compositions? That question is at the heart of several high-profile court cases, including the recent “Blurred Lines” trial and a current copyright-infringement lawsuit involving “Stairway to Heaven.” But it isn’t always easy to prove a song is yours – particularly when you’re up against one of the biggest rock and roll bands of all time.

But proving a song is yours isn’t always easy, says leading music attorney Ken Anderson. “The first step is establishing ownership,” Anderson says. “That means that the material is original to you, meaning you’re the one who created the material.” [He] says you also have to show that the accused had access to your material.

“We listen to the music if it’s recorded, or we study it if it’s only in written form,” says [musicologist Judith Finell, who has testified in many high-profile cases]. “And usually, we transcribe any section of that music if it sounds similar to the other music we’re comparing it to. Then we start to determine if they have similar pitches in common, similar rhythms. What is it that makes them sound related?”

This is a fun radio piece from NPR, which does focus mostly on Led Zeppelin’s infamous ‘appropriations.’ I wouldn’t put the “Blurred Lines” case in the same category as “Stairway To Heaven”, though … I see some merit in the latter, but, personally, not much in the former. (As I tweeted to a friend the week that the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit went for the plaintiff, “I wonder what the Bob Marley estate is thinking right now.”)

I’ve recently been doing some consulting work for a well-known songwriter, and a recent top 40 hit by an unrelated artist contains a melody line that is suspiciously similar to one of hers. The artist in question (or, more likely, his label) was proactive in that he gave my client shared songwriting credit, but without contacting her. We found out through online press that the song received. No one here is upset – the similar part is brief, and my client is happy for the extra royalty that should come in – but this practice of preventively crediting songwriters that may or may not have been intentionally appropriated is new to me. It’s probably a lot more common than I know, mainly due to the issues raised in the NPR piece.

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