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 Taurusby 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 StoneMagazine’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...