Today Led Zeppelin (or, more precisely, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant) were cleared of plagiarism charges related to their most iconic song, “Stairway to Heaven”.
Led Zeppelin do have a history of taking bits and pieces of other people’s songs. Taking elements from other songs and building new songs out of them, or incorporating them into new songs, is as old a practice as songwriting itself. Some will even tell you quite openly about how they did it. Elvis Costello, in his Rhino reissue liner notes and then in his autobiography Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, goes into considerable detail about the inspirations both of his songs and of the arrangements he and his band The Attractions devised for these songs. His point, I think, is that, if you have an original voice and bring enough disparate influences to bear, the result will not be a copy of anything.
This should not be confused with simply taking other people’s songs, making a new arrangement or adaptation of them and then claiming credit. Led Zeppelin had to settle out of court with a few songwriters for doing that. In the folk domain it is an accepted practice to make adaptations of traditional tunes. Bob Dylan is well known for taking traditional songs, reworking them, and adding new lyrics. For example, “Blowin’ in the Wind” is an adaptation of an old spiritual known as “No More Auction Block For Me”. You can hear Dylan singing that song on the first of his Bootleg Series albums. It’s not a copy- the melodic similarities are there, but there are differences too- but it is melodically derivative. It is said that Woody Guthrie hardly wrote any original melodies at all.
Such adaptations are one thing when you’re messing with traditional tunes. No particular person is known to have written these songs, after all. It’s another matter when you do it with a song that does, under copyright, belong to someone else, as Led Zeppelin found when blues singer Willie Dixon took them to court over a couple of songs including “Whole Lotta Love”.
So Led Zeppelin have a reputation for plagiarism. But did they steal from Spirit’s song Taurus to build their “Stairway to Heaven”? Today a jury said no, and as a songwriter I am relieved by this verdict. Yes, there is a classical guitar figure that is (for three bars each time) common to both songs, which is also common to a number of other pieces, including a section of Pink Floyd’s “Is There Anybody Out There?”. Copyrighting riffs and chord progressions strikes me as a bad idea.
Expecting complete originality in any work of art is absurd. Any artist works within preexisting forms, is influenced by what others have done, attempts to find their own way of recreating the magic that, for them, exists in their favourite pieces, and hopefully manages to make their own thing out of it all. That’s the best you can hope for.