Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery or might it just lead to a lawsuit?

“Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” So said the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, guilty himself of a number of kleptomaniacal acts, such as the large-scale reproduction of themes from Pergolesi for his ballet Pulcinella. Whereas the history of classical music is replete with pillage and plunder of other composers, in modern times the idea of borrowing or building on music written by rivals or predecessors seems to have become much more controversial, politicised – and even litigated.

Consider two cases, one from the US and one from Australia. One of the most successful bands of the 20th century, Led Zeppelin, has been accused of copyright infringement for their song Stairway to Heaven. Led Zeppelin supposedly purloined a passage from a song called Taurus by the band Spirit. This is no minor accusation, since the Zeppelin song is consistently ranked as one of the greatest hits of all time (Number 31 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 greatest songs).

In Australia, one of the most recognisable anthems, Men at Work’s 1981 hit Down Under, has also been the subject of controversy for its supposed lifting of the iconic children’s ditty Kookaburra for a flute line in the song. Men at Work’s great Aussie export reached No 1 in the UK, Canada, Ireland, Denmark and New Zealand charts in 1982 and hit No 1 in the US in January 1983. It sold two million copies in the US alone, so the accusations of plagiarism have serious commercial consequences. The case was ultimately settled, but it lasted five years and cost $4.5 million in legal fees on both sides (the instigator of the allegations of copyright walked away with just $100,000).

By contrast, in the days before modern notions of intellectual property and copyright law, there was a long history of imitation and borrowing in classical music, composers acknowledging Newton’s humble assertion, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. In the Baroque period, Handel, Bach and others routinely reworked their own compositions and those of their predecessors. Later, Mozart made a few changes to a symphony by Michael Haydn and called it his Symphony No 37. Publishers, driven by the profit motive, routinely put the name Josquin des Prez to disparate compositions to push sales. Composers also commonly used folk tunes and reworked them without any acknowledgement. This was the case with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which extensively used Russian folk themes, while Beethoven played the same borrowing game in his Razumovsky Quartets.

Gustav Mahler was perhaps the most shameless plunderer of all, incorporating into his monumental symphonies Yiddish music, folk songs, military marching music and even the children’s tune Brüder Martin in the third movement of his First Symphony (the French version Frère Jacques is better known to English speakers). Brahms was so overwhelmed by the long shadow that Beethoven cast over the 19th century that he took two decades of sketching before he finally published his First Symphony in 1876 at the age of 43. The symphony is often jokingly referred to as “Beethoven’s Tenth”, such is the similarity of the main theme in the final movement to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme. No one, however, thinks less of Brahms for borrowing from Beethoven. On the contrary, the canonical link between the two elevates each composer. Brahms was back to his old imitative ways in the Fourth Symphony: in the finale, the passacaglia adapts the final movement of Bach’s cantata, Nach Dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV150. The list goes on.

Those taking issue with “borrowing” in popular music are therefore deviating from the extensive imitative history of classical music. The question of whether composers or artists should be able to borrow and appropriate from other artists, however, is not merely a commercial one: it has important ramifications for contemporary classical composition. It is arguable that the pressure to discover new, original ways of composing sometimes creates music of questionable merit. It might be preferable for artists to pay homage to the greats of yesteryear by reworking material than to simply create original art for originality’s sake.

In his short book The Lessons of History, Will Durant argued, “If art now seems to lose itself in bizarreries, this is not only because it is vulgarised by mass suggestion or domination, but also because it has exhausted the possibilities of old schools and forms.” Just as Brahms found inspiration in Bach and Beethoven, I would venture to suggest that the past continues to be a wellspring of ideas and creativity.