The recent Led Zeppelin copyright lawsuit relates to one of rock music’s classic songs and is making news around the world. Last week a judge in Los Angeles ruled that a jury should decided whether the opening chords of ‘Stairway to Heaven‘ were stolen from another song.
‘Taurus’ by Spirit
Rival folk-rock band, Spirit, first brought the copyright infringement lawsuit against the surviving members of Led Zeppelin in 2014. Spirit’s lawsuit alleges that the opening riff of Led Zeppelin’s most famous song copies the chord progression of Spirit’s 1967 instrumental song ‘Taurus‘, without any credit. Randy Wolfe (known professionally as Randy California) Spirit’s guitarist and Taurus composer, drowned in Hawaii 1997 in an attempt to save his son from drowning. In one of California’s final interviews he raised the similarities between Taurus and Stairway. Michael Skidmore, is bringing the claim as a trustee of the estate of California.
Share of the royalties
As one of the most popular rock songs of all time, Stairway continues to bring in massive publishing and performance royalties for the band and also the writers, lead guitarist, Jimmy Page, and singer, Robert Plant. Music Radar estimates that Stairway has earned over $550 million since being released on the ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ album in 1970. Even though the trustee is limited to receiving a maximum of 50% of any damages awarded at the jury trial, there is still is a large amount of money in play.
‘Substantial similarity’ under copyright law
In early April 2016, U.S. Judge Gary Klausner held that, pursuant to the test under U.S. copyright law, there is ‘substantial similarity’ between the opening chords of the two songs. As such, there is therefore enough merit for the case to be argued before a jury, with the case slated to begin in May 2016. Judge Klausner went on to indicate that part of the jury’s task will be assessing the ‘concept and feel’ of the two tracks.
Led Zeppelin copyright – influence or copy?
But the jury will have to be cautious. When assessing music copyright, and riffs and chord progression in particular, it becomes difficult to say who is copying who. Blues and folk music have always borrowed from the past masters. Davy Graham’s recording of 1959 song ‘Cry Me a River‘ also sounds a lot like ‘Stairway’. It will be hard for Plant and Page to argue that they weren’t at least influenced by the songs and songwriters that came before them.
It may also help Spirit’s claim that Led Zeppelin allegedly toured with them in the late 1960s and the groups often spoke backstage. The obviously implication here is that even if Page and Plant did not deliberately copy the riff from Spirit, there it was at least an unconscious influence when writing Stairway.
Led Zeppelin like many blues and R&B bands has heavily borrowed from the work of other musicians that went before them. Led Zeppelin themselves are no strangers to copyright infringement claims. Singer-songwriter Jake Holmes sued Jimmy Page in 2010 for alleged plagiarism of the song ‘Dazed and Confused’ and the parties settled out of court in 2012. In a similar way Willie Dixon’s music publishers sued Led Zeppelin for alleged plagiarism of ‘Bring it on Home’ in 1972 and the parties settled out of court.
Delay in bringing Led Zeppelin copyright claim
There is also the question of why Randy California and his trustees have waited almost 45 years to bring the copyright infringement claim against Led Zeppelin. California’s representatives claim that he thought about bringing an infringement claims against the Led Zeppelin copyright in the 1980s but he couldn’t afford it.
If Spirit’s claim successful and they persuade the jury that Page and Plant did copy chord progressions from Taurus, it may open the floodgates for other musicians to launch actions for a share of the royalties in famous songs that would otherwise be out of time.
Glut of copyright infringement cases
Interestingly the recent Led Zeppelin copyright case will be the third infringement case relating to rock and pop music in the last few years. These cases have has varying outcomes. In March 2015 the estate of Marvin Gaye won a copyright infringement claim against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ song ‘Blurred Lines‘. On the other hand, in October 2015 Jay-Z successfully defended a copyright infringement case that was brought against him and Timbaland over a sample included in Jay-Z’s 1999 record ‘Big Pimpin”.
It is not clear what the jury will decide when the Led Zeppelin copyright infringement claim comes before them next month. The only thing that is certain in the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ lawsuit is that the laws of copyright and the approach the courts take to borrowing from past recordings is itself blurry. The outcome will be interesting.
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