the planets

If you’ve listened to Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, you probably thought the same thing I did: it sounds a lot like Star Wars. And I mean a whole lot. The similarities are especially noticeable in the first movement, Mars, which is very similar to The Imperial March.

They’re so similar, in fact, at times it sounds like one was ripped straight from the other. Since The Planets came first (1916), does that make the original Star Wars composer, John Williams, a big copy cat?

In Holst’s work, each movement of the suite is based on the astrological nature of a planet in our Solar System. You might say it’s a fairly high-concept album. In more modern times, musical artists like Ryan O'Neal and Sufjan Stevens have done similar projects with planet-based songs. I expect during the time, Holst’s theme was quite unique.

Inspiration is a strange thing. Legally, there are rules concerning how similar one's work is allowed to be to another without it being considered stealing. I remember someone telling me about 10% is allowable. Even then, it gets muddy. I’m thinking Under Pressure vs. Ice, Ice Baby sorts of things. And I hope we can all agree that Vanilla Ice ain’t got nothin’ on David Bowie.

Beyond the a question of what is legal, I wonder what is right? I don’t think Williams denies  the influence The Planets had on his score for Star Wars, but does that still make it ok? That’s a tough one. 

The soundtrack for Star Wars is an excellent piece of work on its own (in my opinion), and it’s impossible to say what shape it would have taken without Holst’s influence. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when massive success and recognition comes from adopting portions of another person’s work into your own, a certain amount of credit (and even financial compensation) is due to the originator. 

A worker is worthy of their wages—that’s no less true when it’s a creative work.

It’s hard to draw a line, but I think every artist deserves to receive recognition and value when their own work leads to the advancement of another’s.

Apparently, there was also a lawsuit based on Hans Zimmer’s score for Gladiator, which duplicated some aspects of The Planets. So Williams wasn’t the only one influenced. And so it goes with great works of art—other people notice and they can’t help but want to do something similar. That’s not a bad thing.

I often think about this when I see people on YouTube getting paid to play someone else’s game. I’m not against it, and have even enjoyed watching a few playthroughs myself, but I also wonder whether or not it benefits the game company. People might not buy a game they can watch someone play, but then again the game is getting free publicity.

When it comes to inspired work, one important question to ask is who has the most to gain and who has the most to lose?

Where do you think the line should be drawn between inspiration and stealing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A.P. Lambert

A.P. Lambert is a creative professional who helps others live with creativity and purpose.