I think Stairway to Heaven is far to long a song, and consider it over-rated. It lasts for over ten minutes, and Bohemian Rhapsody is only six minutes, and has rather more going for it. Besides, being ex-Imperial and having a PhD in physics, I feel a certain kinship with lead guitarist Dr Brian May, however I am not sure it is reciprocated.
That as may be, after an eight-day jury trial, it was ruled that the guitar riff did not infringe copyright of Spirit’s song Taurus.
I think that the media should differentiate more carefully between copyright infringement which is a crime, and plagiarism which is not.
Men at Work’s Greg Ham were accused of plagiarizing Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree in Down Under. He committed suicide, leaving a note that said “I’m terribly disappointed that that’s the way I’m going to be remembered – for copying something…”. This was a tragedy.
Now it can happen that a song is based, possibly unintentionally on the work of another. George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord was found to have the same melody as Ronnie Mack’s He’s So Fine. The melody of Naomi Shemer’s Lu Hehi (literally let it be), bears more than a casual similarity to Paul McCartney’s Let it Be.
Of course, sometimes an unmistakable similarity does not imply that one piece is a copy of the other. A good example of this is HaTikveh (The Hope) – Israel’s national Anthem, the melody of which may be found here. there is a clear similarity to the melody of Vltava by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. However, although Samuel Cohen, the composer, admitted that he was influended by a Moldovian song, it is far from clear where the melody originated and it may well have Jewish origins. That as may be, sometimes a composer will reference a line from the work of another, and this should be considered fair use. A good of example of this is the Swan-song from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake which has a four-stroke drum beat that echos Beethoven’s fifth symphonyfifth symphonyfifth symphony (Death at the Door). I don’t see this as copyright infringement, but rather as a cultural reference. Copyright now lasts a ridiculously long 70 or 95 years. Do we really want to prevent any discernible similarities to the work of anyone in living memory in new works? The jury got it right, even if it took them over a week.
POST SCRIPT I showed this article to a client who is part of the Israeli music world. The Client studied at Netiv Meir and is not now Hallachically Observant. He told me that in the Nineties a noise-rock outfit called Plastic Venus played at the club where he worked. After the show, he asked the lead singer, Ronit Bergman, who wrote the music, and she pointed to the drummer Ilan Diamond. He went over to him and asked if he could ask him a personal question, and when Diamond agreed, asked him what Hassidic Court he grew up in. The answer was Vishnitz. If one listens to Plastic Venus’s music under the psychedelic overtones and all the distortion, one can discern Hassidic melodies. People listen to, absorb and rework the melodies of their childhood and other music they once heard. There are interesting historical reasons why Chabad Hassidim sing Napoleon’s March to this day. The reasons are linked to why the early Rebbes were incarcerated by the Tzar.