“Stairway to Heaven” has been hailed for decades as one of (if not, the) greatest rock song ever recorded. Each time it’s played, it further cements Led Zeppelin’s reputation as rock n’ roll immortals.
But what if Led Zeppelin stole “Stairway to Heaven” and passed it off as their own? That’s exactly what the band Spirit is trying to prove in court. They allege “Stairway” was taken from their song “Taurus” after they toured with Zeppelin in the 1960’s. The suit was filed as a “falsification of rock n’ roll history.”
This isn’t Zeppelin’s first rodeo when it comes to music copyright infringement. They’ve also been accused of ripping off their hits “Dazed and Confused,” “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “Whole Lotta Love.”
Welcome to music copyright infringement, a legal arena with lots of gray area and an abundance of high-profile lawsuits.
When it comes to written works, it’s fairly easy to spot plagiarism—the words are on the page. It’s tougher with music. For both, the process starts with proving ownership of the original work. This was where folk singer Anne Bredon, the writer of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” started her suit. She had written the song in 1960. Joan Baez did a version of it (without giving Bredon credit), and then Zeppelin recorded it. On the Zeppelin album, it was credited to guitarist Jimmy Page, as “Traditional, arranged by.” The suit was eventually settled out of court.
So, when does inspiration become copyright infringement (read the actual law here)? A good example is the “Blurred Lines” case: Last year, a jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams had infringed on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 classic “Got to Give it Up” when they wrote and recorded the song. Judith Finell, a noted musicologist, was brought in to analyze the sheet music and audio of both songs and then render a decision.
After finishing her detailed analysis of both songs, she came to the conclusion that they were similar enough to justify the charge of copyright infringement. Finell generally looks for similarities in pitch and rhythm; in this case, she also asserted the “hook” of each song shared bass lines, keyboard parts, and other characteristics.
Collaborations gone bad
Another recent case: In 2006, Vincent Peters had demoed his songs, including one called “Stronger,” for Kanye West’s producer, in hopes of creating a business deal. While they ended up working together, Peters’ album was never distributed. A year later, West released his own song called “Stronger,” which according to Peters, contained similarities to his version. It went on to become a huge hit, and now as you might expect, Peters is going after West.
Peters’ claim was dismissed by the trial court, but he appealed. In evaluating his suit, the appellate court noted that copyright law protects the actual work, but not the idea. So, even though Kanye West’s hit song had the same title as Peters’ and contained some of the same lyrics (a Nietzsche line), he was not found to have committed copyright infringement.
Creativity vs. property
Maybe the most important case of this kind was John Fogerty vs. Fantasy Records. In 1988, Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing a song he wrote. Sound confusing? It is. He didn’t own the copyright to the original after selling his back catalog to Fantasy, his label at the time.
The suit said that his new song, “The Old Man Down the Road,” was the same as a song he wrote in 1970, “Run Through the Jungle,” with different words. Fogerty won the suit, contending the songs sounded the same because of his style of playing and writing. The ideas may be the same, but not the actual body of work. So he basically had to defend himself for sounding like himself. The headline in The New York Times read: “A Victory for the Creative Process”.
Music, like all art, has many influences. Most every great artist or musician has been influenced by those who came before them. But there’s a line. Integrity is at stake, and often, significant cash—the suit against Zeppelin, slated to go to trial in May, could potentially claim half a billion dollars in damages. That’s a lot of stairways.