Currently, Led Zeppelin is in court for copyright infringement for their song Stairway to Heaven. The plaintiff is a band called Spirit who claim the opening chords of Stairway to Heaven were stolen from their song Taurus, released 2 years before. The case is ongoing and I hope, as I will explain, that Led Zeppelin comes out the winner.
The family of deceased Spirit guitarist and singer, Randy California, filed the suit against Zeppelin claiming monetary damages and a writing credit. Also, the suit aimed at stopping a re-mastered version of the song being released. If successful, a share of the songs profits, roughly $562 million, could be a sizeable win for the family!
Both songs have a lot of similarities; they are both in the key of Am and feature a descending base line. This is not an uncommon songwriting form, especially in 60’s style with pop rock bands like the Beatles using these types of forms often, Eleanor Rigby etc. Also, Taurus stays on the Am for the descending base line, whereas Stairway moves to a D with an F# in the bass, then a major 7th, then G to Am. It’s a completely different chord structure! Plus, it has an ascending melody moving up the scale on the e string. What people hear when they listen to both is the phrasing. The similar phrasing coupled with the base line makes the feel similar. But can you really be sued because of the feel of a song?
With only limited notes and scales available to western musicians it's fairly certain any song has copied/been influenced or referenced by a previous song. These last few cases should make musicians fearful of copyright and the lack of protection afforded them.
This isn't the first time a successful artist has been taken to court after the success of a song. We saw Pharrell lose the case for Blurred Lines (accused ideas stolen from Marvin Gaye) and Men at Work's Down Under (accused melodies stolen from Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree). All of whom were not sued by the original creator of the song, but the families and publishing companies well after their deaths.
With songs sounding 'vaguely' familiar and non-musicians with the power to decide what's been copied it's a wonder there aren't more cases. So, is there a solution? Could professional musicians be brought in to discuss the musicianship of the song? If it were a medical case, an expert would be brought in.
Everywhere you look; fashion, music and art has all been influenced and inspired by others. By handicapping musicians with legal loop-holes and families of deceased artists ‘cashing in’, the music industry will continue to be hurt, both creatively and stylistically in the future. Good luck Led Zeppelin.
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