Led Zeppelin Makes Us Ask: When is Copying Okay?

By | June 19, 2014

SBR01_B1_05.20.2014_DCIn another Tuesday in the music business, Led Zeppelin just got hit with a lawsuit claiming that their iconic song, “Stairway to Heaven”, copies its memorable guitar riff from the song “Taurus” by the lesser-known band, Spirit.  Popular musicians being hit with copyright lawsuits is absolutely nothing new, but the case against Led Zeppelin looks pretty damaging: not only is the guitar riff from “Stairway to Heaven” very similar to a sequence from “Taurus”; the two bands actually worked together in the late sixties, after “Taurus” was released.  And Led Zeppelin isn’t exactly new to these issues, either: several of their songs had songwriting credits altered after the fact to reflect copied musical fragments.

In any field, whether it’s creative, business or something else, the easiest way to get a project started is to take something someone else has already created and put your own spin on it.  It’s why there’s so much fan fiction on the internet, and the reason that Star Wars is just Flash Gordon in color.  The same is absolutely true of creating a business: why reinvent the wheel when there are so many existing models that you can build on?

The answer, of course, is that it can come back to bite you.  Just like Led Zeppelin’s impending lawsuit, business owners can hit you with legal action for stealing their documents, web copy and sales scripts, which can cause your business to stall out and die.  No matter how compelling another business owner’s sales pitch is, if you lift it word-for-word for your own business, you’ve infringed their copyright and broken the law.

Here’s the twist, though: as compelling as the copyright case for “Stairway to Heaven” is, Led Zeppelin will probably end up winning the case.  Why?  Because, as one music expert puts it: “This passage is little more than a stock standard chord progression whose origins would be very difficult to determine.”  In other words, putting those particular notes together in that order is much less copying than it is just doing something that makes musical sense.  The same thing holds true for designing your online business: as you research, you’ll see multiple experts in your field doing basically the same thing, and it isn’t because they are all copying from each other: it’s because these ideas are so fundamental to running a good business that it would be hard to operate without them.  That’s the secret to what is and isn’t plagiarism: if a competitor’s sales pitch uses a series of sound ideas to make its point, you can use the same ideas in your own sales pitch.  Once you start lifting sentences verbatim from your competitor, that’s when you’re doing something wrong.

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