Born This Way: It's the same old song... so what?

As Madonna's brother accuses Lady Gaga of stealing her latest hit, Fiona Sturges says pop plagiarism claims miss the point

A week ago an event occurred that changed the world as we knew it. It was met with almost universal jubilation and signalled a victory for oppressed people everywhere. I'm not talking about the toppling of the Egyptian president, though that comes a close second in terms of drama. I'm referring to the release of Lady Gaga's new single and ode to the disenfranchised, "Born This Way".

Few singles have been as hotly anticipated as this fist-pumping, disco-loving, self-proclaimed gay anthem, not least by Gaga herself who suddenly brought the release date forward, gasping on Twitter that she simply couldn't wait any longer. It is also the first from her forthcoming album, due for release in May, and is intended to give us a taster of delights yet to come. In this respect, "Born This Way" has done its job. It has won the approval of her millions of "little monsters", as her fans are called, shot to No 1 in the US Billboard chart, and heralded a suitably barmy Grammy performance, in which the singer seemed to hatch from a giant egg.

But "Born This Way" has also prompted a row that even this unapologetically demented, steak-wearing icon probably didn't anticipate, and that's whether she nicked it wholesale from Madonna's 1989 hit "Express Yourself". Leading the charge of accusers is Christopher Ciccone, Madonna's brother, with an expletive-ridden attack on the two songs' similarities. By Friday evening the internet was buzzing with comments simultaneously defending and blasting Gaga. Plagiarism clearly being in the ear of the beholder, by Monday the singer stood accused of stealing not just from Madonna but also from TLC, Alanis Morissette, David Guetta, Carl Bean and High School Musical as well.

So did Gaga deliberately filch her latest hit from Madonna? Given that this isn't exactly an under-the-radar release, it's pretty unlikely. Perhaps a more pressing question might be: does it matter either way?

Of course it doesn't. Sure, there are similarities between the two songs, most noticeably in the melody. But if you listen to it over and over you begin to hear – or imagine you're hearing – all manner of songs past and present. Why? Because mainstream pop music has broadly stuck to a formula in sound and structure that has been carried across the decades. If it didn't, it wouldn't be called "popular music".

When it comes to creating art in any form, sources of inspiration can be entirely unconscious. Add to this the fact that, in music, there are limited notes to choose from and a finite number of variations one can employ for a three-minute pop song, and the notion of what constitutes a copy, and what is mere coincidence, gets every more murky (Shostakovich is alleged to have underlined the point when he used the tune to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in his Prelude No 15 in D Flat Major).

Pop plagiarism has been a thorny issue ever since George Harrison lost a lawsuit in 1981 on the grounds of having used the melody of the Chiffons' song "He's So Fine" on his 1971 hit "My Sweet Lord". The judge conceded that this was a case of "subconscious plagiarism", though it still cost the ex-Beatle around £400,000.

Since then, barely a week has gone by without an obscure or long-forgotten musician complaining that someone has ripped off their cherished composition, in the hope of getting a writing credit and, where possible, a sizeable royalty cheque.

A year ago Eddy Grant, of "Electric Avenue" fame, requested credit for Gorillaz's "Stylo", from their album Plastic Beach, which he felt had overwhelming similarities to his instrumental B-side from 1982 "Time Warp". In 2008 Coldplay suffered a triple whammy when they were accused of plagiarism by Joe Satriani, Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) and an obscure outfit named Creaky Boards. Each claimed that the song "Viva La Vida" lifted substantial portions from their own compositions – "If I Could Fly", "Foreigner Suite" and "The Songs I Didn't Write", respectively. Creaky Boards retracted their allegations when it was proved that Chris Martin and Co had written their song long before they penned theirs. Satriani's case was settled out of court while Islam never pursued his.

Plagiarism can exist in many forms. It might refer to lyrical similarities, or echoes of the melody and structure of another song. It can also refer to unauthorised sampling, a can of worms that was opened after technology made it possible for artists to cut and paste other people's work. In the Eighties and early Nineties, many musicians were frequently caught out assuming that their samples were undetectable or too obscure. The KLF unlawfully used Abba samples in their 1987 album What The Fuck Is Going On? and ended up taking thousands of recalled copies to Sweden and burning them on a pyre.

But, while the use of samples is unambiguous, and now routinely credited, the broader appropriation of sounds and ideas is more difficult to prove. Of course, there is a fine line between inspiration and imitation. But at this stage in its evolution, is any pop music truly original? Elvis and the Rolling Stones used the sounds of black blues-players; Oasis borrowed liberally from the Beatles. For the past 20 years music has looked determinedly backwards, with the most popular bands of the present preferring to plunder the back catalogues of Eighties bands.

At the beginning of this week Madonna emailed Gaga to express her support for "Born This Way", leading Lady Gaga to remark on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: "If the queen says it shall be, then it shall be". It's possible that the Queen of Pop is simply delighted with the controversy, sitting back and totting up the royalties as pop lovers across the world, inspired by Gaga's single, revisit her greatest hits.

But whatever her reasons, if Madonna is happy with "Born This Way" then who are we to say its existence is wrong? I say leave Gaga alone and let her get on with the job of making largely derivative yet frequently inspired pop music. Let's face it, a world without her would be a very dull place indeed.

They're playing our tune: Four claims

Led Zeppelin Last year an American folk singer, James Holmes, who once opened a show for Jimmy Page's then-band The Yardbirds, attempted to sue Led Zeppelin for $1m in damages, citing plagiarism on the classic "Dazed and Confused". It's not clear why he took 40 years to make a formal complaint.

Nirvana In 1993 Killing Joke made a complaint against Nirvana, alleging that the Seattle band had stolen the riff of "Come As You Are" from their song "Eighties". This was dropped after the death of Nirvana's singer Kurt Cobain.

Elastica This all-girl four-piece released "Connection" in 1994, causing an instant commotion with its opening riff, which seemed to borrow from the art-punk band Wire's "Three Girl Rhumba". Wire were vocal in their disapproval, as were their fans, though they opted not to sue.

Grinderman In October Nick Cave and his Grinderman cohorts were challenged over "Palaces of Montezuma" by Scottish musician Frankie Duffy, who said it was based on his former band's 2005 song "Grey Man". "When the vocal hook comes in..." Duffy said, "it's exactly the same."