Inspiration, Appropriation or Plagiarism: Let’s Take a Look at Music Copyright Suits

Several times a year we hear about someone getting sued because their new hit sounds a little bit too much like someone else’s older song. NPR takes a look at what seems to be a growing problem/trend/issue.

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.

Late one night, around 1960, folksinger Anne Bredon (known then as Anne Johannsen) brought her banjo to KPFK in Berkeley, Calif., and performed a song called “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” on the station’s open mic show.

Berkeley student Janet Smith heard it and asked Bredon if she could teach her the song. Smith then tweaked it to come up with her own version and performed the song at college “hootenannies.”

That’s where Joan Baez heard it.

“[Baez] came up to me and said, ‘I like the kind of songs that you sing. I wonder if you’d be willing to send me a tape,'” Smith says. “It didn’t occur to me that I should have identified ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ as being written by Anne Bredon, because in those days people who wrote stuff kind of hoped no one would notice, and have it be an ‘official’ folk song.”

Baez changed it a little more, then recorded it for her 1962 concert album — but Bredon wasn’t credited on the album. Two years later, when Baez’s songbook was in the works, Janet Smith led the publisher to Bredon.

Another five years later, Led Zeppelin recorded its version of the song.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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