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The Psychological Mechanism That Might Explain the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Plagiarism Case

Only Jimmy Page and Robert Plant can know whether they intentionally lifted material from another artist, but research shows it’s not uncommon for such copying to happen unintentionally.

By Francie Diep


Led Zeppelin performing on stage. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Members of Led Zeppelin are facing a lawsuit from the estate of a songwriter for the band Spirit, with whom Led Zeppelin toured in the late 1960s. The estate contends Led Zeppelin songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant copied the opening bars of “Stairway to Heaven” from a song by Spirit called “Taurus.”

You can listen to the two songs below:

Whether the two opening chord sequences are alike enough to constitute plagiarism will now be up to a jury. What interested Pacific Standard was how this could happen, aside from outright stealing (which, presumably, we may never get to the bottom of; only Page and Plant would know for sure). And Led Zeppelin is certainly not the first major rock group to field such an accusation. There have been many instances in American history of songwriters being sued for sequence-lifting.

“I think most cases are inadvertent,” Stanford University psychologist Gordon H. Bowertold Pacific Standardlast year. Bower researches cryptomnesia, a phenomenon in which somebody like a musician or writer calls up a memory of an already-existing song or sentence without realizing it, and believes it to be her own, original creation. The notion makes a lot of intuitive sense. It also happens to be documented in studies.

In one well-known experiment by Bower and his colleague, the late Richard L. Marsh, study volunteers played a game of Boggle with a computer partner, then had to recall which words they had found. Bower and Marsh reported that volunteers often thought they’d spotted words that the computer had, in fact, found.

“In the wake of their research, Marsh and Bower concluded that cryptomnesia is actually a good deal more common than anyone would realize,” Pacific Standard’s J. Wesley Judd wrote.

In another study, volunteers in groups were supposed to come up with words fitting certain categories, after which each person had to claim which specific ideas were their own. Study authors Alan Brown and Dana Murphy found that “Plagiarism of others’ generated responses occurred … in each experiment, despite instructions to avoid such intrusions.”

If research is any indication, idea theft is something of a natural phenomenon, which means there will likely be plenty more cases like Led Zeppelin’s to come.