Stealing Artistically

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One of the main rules many artists have been taught to take seriously is avoiding plagiarism or copying someone else’s work. However in the past few weeks some of my favorite artists have become embroiled in scandals and debates relating to this topic.

The first story is that of Led Zeppelin who are currently being sued by representatives of the band Spirit for allegedly ripping off the guitar line for the infamous “Stairway to Heaven”. While the story has gained plenty of publicity it’s actually one that many fans of rock music have been aware of for several years (Chappell). (Cracked.com, for instance, mentioned the similarities between the songs back in 2010.) This is not the first time Led Zeppelin have been accused of plagiarism. In 1972 the band was sued by ARC Records who claimed that “The Lemon Song” was plagiarized from the Howlin’ Wolf number “Killing Floor” (turnmeondeadman.com) In 1985 the band was again sued, this time by blues musician Willie Dixon who claimed the song “Whole Lotta Love” borrowed heavily from his song “You Need Love” (DeGroot).The most recent lawsuit against the band was in 2010; the plaintiff was musician Jake Holmes who claimed Led Zeppelin had plagiarized his song “Dazed and Confused” (Ibid). In all three cases the band settled out of court and the respective musicians have been given songwriting credits on reissues of the albums (though Jake Holmes has merely been given a credit of “Inspired by” on the Celebration Day album and DVD (www.turnmeondeadman.com).

The second story is that of Jack White and The Black Keys. The two bands have had a bit of feud for several years. However in a recent Rolling Stone article, White accused The Keys of ripping off his sound stating, “There are kids at school who dress like everybody else, because they don’t know what to do, and there are musicians like that, too. I’ll hear TV commercials where the music’s ripping off sounds of mine, to the point I think it’s me. Half the time, it’s the Black Keys…” White also went on to suggest that there are musicians that open up a market (his example Amy Winehouse) and those that merely follow in their footsteps (his examples Duffy, Lana Del Rey, and Adele). White has since apologized for his statements on his website.

Both of these stories are intriguing to me (obviously since they are both about artists that I enjoy and listen to on a regular basis). However both bring up some interesting questions about copying and plagiarism. When does “inspiration” turn into plagiarism? Where is the fine line between being in the company of your favorite artists or merely being a “copy-cat?” The answer might be more complicated then we think.

First we might need to review the definition of plagiarism. According to plagiarism.org (who utilize the definition of the Merriam Webster dictionary) “to plagiarize means; to steal or pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own, to use (another’s production) without crediting the source, to commit literary theft, to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source” (www.plagiarism.org). The site states plagiarism is an act of fraud that involves stealing someone’s work and lying about it afterwards (Ibid). It also notes that under US Law the expression of ideas are protected under copyright laws as intellectual property as long as they are recorded in some way (Ibid). Obliviously the definition is stringent though the site also notes plagiarism can be avoided by simply crediting any sources utilized (Ibid).

However there are those that challenge the conventional ideas about plagiarism and copyright law. Among these individuals are Kirby Ferguson and Austin Kleon. Both men argue that nothing is really “original” and that most creative works are a mash-up or remix of previous ideas. Ferguson in particular takes aim at copyright law stating, “American Copyright and Patent laws run counter to this notion that we build on the work of others. Instead these laws…use the rather awkward analogy of property. Now creative works may indeed be kind of like property, but it’s property we are all building on and creations can only take root and grow once that ground has been prepared.”

So what is an artist to do in a world where nothing is original but copyright laws rule the day? Well according to Austin Kleon (author of the book Steal Like an Artist) the answers lie in understanding your creative genealogy (i.e. the family tree of artist you admire and are similar to) and then collecting ideas from those artists and transforming those ideas into something greater. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” Though as Led Zeppelin might attest, citing your sources can help too.

Bibliography and Works Cited

Beauchemin, Molly. “Jack White Slams The Black Keys, Suggests Once Again That They’ve Ripped Off His Sound.” Pitchfork. N.p., 30 May 2014. Web. 5 June 2014. .

Chappell, Bill. “Led Zeppelin Sued Over ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Guitar Line.” NPR. NPR, 20 May 2014. Web. 05 June 2014. .

DeGroot, Joey. “7 Songs That Led Zeppelin Ripped Off.” Music Times RSS. N.p., 20 May 2014. Web. 05 June 2014. .

Ferguson, Kirby. “Kirby Ferguson: Embracing the Remix.” YouTube. YouTube, 10 Aug. 2012. Web. 05 June 2014. .

Kleon, Austin “Steal Like An Artist: Austin Kleon at TEDxKC.” By Austin Kleon. YouTube. YouTube, 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 June 2014. .

“Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “The Lemon Song”” Turn Me On Dead Man. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. .

“Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism?” Turn Me On Dead Man. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. .

“Led Zeppelin: Plagiarism? “Whole Lotta Love”” Turn Me On Dead Man. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 June 2014. .

Ramakrishnan, Rohan. “The 5 Most Famous Musicians Who Are Thieving Bastards.” Cracked.com. N.p., 06 May 2010. Web. 05 June 2014. .

Scalese, Roberto. “Stairway to Theftin’: Led Zeppelin Sued in Most Entertaining Lawsuit Ever.” Boston.com. The New York Times, 03 June 2014. Web. 05 June 2014. .

“What Is Plagiarism?” Plagiarism.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 June 2014. .

White, Jack, III. “An Apology and Explanation from Jack White.” Jack White. N.p., 31 May 2014. Web. 05 June 2014. .

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