In one of his essays from 2002, the critic Terry Eagleton talks about a publishing phenomenon that was directed at concocting literary controversies in 19th-century Ireland. It involved a set of mischievous writers levelling plagiarism charges on celebrity poets like Thomas Moore or Tennyson by forging what they called were source documents or, as Eagleton puts it, by creating “the lost original that the author had plagiarised”. Moore’s Lalla-Rookh was claimed at that time to have been a rip-off of something once presented “in the audience chamber of the King of Delhi”.
The trend was known as “anti-plagiarism”, and Eagleton detects in it the seeds of postmodern contempt for, and suspicion of, originality. Anti-plagiarism was, he writes, “an Oedipal attempt to turn one’s own belatedness into priority”. In other words, it was a Borgesian intellectual game. But such games can thrive only in a society where the concept of intellectual property hasn’t quite taken root. Imagine the financial damages someone like Tennyson could have claimed for such infringements, if only the copyright law had existed in 19th-century Ireland. Come to think of it, a mere legal notice would have put paid to these anti-plagiarism shenanigans. “Mr. Tennyson,” the notice could have said, “hereinafter referred to as The Poet, would like the recipient to kindly consider this to be his last and final warning…”
The recent history of plagiarism scandals in the world of arts, literature and music is enough to prove that contemporary society is in deadly earnest about questions of originality and intellectual property theft. Nobody alive today, whether in Ireland or anywhere else, would tolerate making light of this sensitive topic, just as nobody today tolerates artists who have been found out to be unconscionable plagiarists. The list is endless, but a few prominent names are often repeated in this context. T.S. Eliot is one of them. Bob Dylan also comes to mind.
Dylan’s album Love and Theft, with the latter being the operative word in the title, was at the centre of a plagiarism controversy at the time of its release, and this wasn’t the only Dylan album to face such charges.
This is one of those cases where the counterfeit has gained such cultural standing that it makes the original seem like a forgery.
Media spotlight is currently fixed on the Led Zeppelin affair. It’s more than likely that the Gods of Rock helped themselves to a delicious-sounding riff, originally composed by an American band from the ’60s called Spirit, and used it as the intro to their 1971 classic “Stairway to Heaven”. If you listen to Spirit’s “Taurus”, from which the opening section of “Stairway” was allegedly lifted, you’d be astonished at the similarity between the two. But it’s one of those cases where the counterfeit has gained such cultural standing that it makes the original seem like a forgery. We’re back to our old Irish game, according to whose terms, it would have made great sense for Spirit to have worked back from “Stairway” to “Taurus”, to have forged the original, before bringing plagiarism charges. So no matter what the outcome of this legal case, “Taurus”, in the cultural imagination, will always be a rip-off, and “Stairway” always the genuine article.
Here, of course, we’re discounting the radical differences between the two songs. Or rather, we’re underplaying how radically “Stairway” diverges, in compositional terms, from “Taurus”, becoming, as it progresses, something infinitely greater, more valuable and musically impactful than the latter. In fact, the similarity between the two lasts only for a few seconds. So at its worst, as New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross points out in his recent piece written in defence of Led Zeppelin, Spirit’s song was used by Zeppelin as a point of departure — an act of harmless appropriation that great artists have always been known to endorse and practice. “A borrowed idea can become the kernel of a wholly original thought,” Ross writes. “This is what Bach does in the Passacaglia and Fugue; it’s what Shakespeare does throughout
The Japanese author, from whose work Dylan was said to have borrowed material that went directly into Love and Theft, reportedly told the media that he was honoured by Dylan’s tribute, unacknowledged though it remained. There was a time when such tributes, built upon principles of intertextuality and allusion, were more or less taken for granted in all creative spheres. Today, however, they are frowned upon, castigated and penalised.
This, of course, is not to suggest that our copyright infringement and plagiarism laws are of no use. If anything, in fields like journalism and academia such laws need to be enforced today more rigorously than ever, now that easy-to-access digital technology has made intellectual theft rampant. But things get really complicated when it comes to judging what’s original and what’s borrowed in a work of art, let alone establish what an artist has stolen with the intent to steal.
The last part of the previous sentence is important, and it further complicates the discourse around copyright laws. Creative appropriations are often inadvertent and there are several examples from the world of music that can be cited to corroborate that. There is also the equally complex idea of artistic influence to be taken into account here, about which we still understand very little.
To what degree, then, do we attribute an apparent act of creative theft to accident or influence? May be that’s the question we need addressed when dealing with suspicious levels of similarity between two works of art. But before we get to that, we must settle a more pressing, and more relevant question: of divergences, of differences. We must first ask, How different are the two works of art? And if the creative gulf between the two is as great as there exists between “Stairway” and “Taurus”, then perhaps it’s safer to rule in favour of the work of genius, even when it fails to acknowledge all its mediocre sources.