You may have heard that Led Zeppelin is being sued for copyright infringement for “borrowing” the opening chord progression on their mega-hit, “Stairway To Heaven.”
It’s such an iconic progression that it’s going through your head right this second, without me having to hum it for you, which is a good thing, since I have no idea how I would manage that.
It’s also a song that Zeppelin recorded in 1971. Forty-three years ago.
Zeppelin’s being sued by surviving members of the band Spirit, which claims the riff was “riffed-off” (ooh, can I copyright that?) from their song “Taurus,” which appeared on their 1968 album, and was composed by their guitarist Randy California, who passed away in 1997.
Once you start delving into the story, it all gets very complicated. Questions range from “can a chord progression be copyrighted?” to “where did this progression originate from anyway?”
A lot of folks sue artists, claiming that they were the source of some major work, and most of that is hogwash, wishful thinking, or can be chalked up to coincidence. A fair amount of the time it’s probably unconscious on the artist’s part (I’m still not convinced George Harrison consciously stole “He’s So Fine” when he penned “My Sweet Lord,” for which he was successfully sued.)
In Spirit’s case, though, they have a pretty credible claim. To give you an idea how far back the roots of this thing go, Zeppelin was the opening act for Spirit! Spirit regularly played “Taurus” and Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page regularly heard it. It’s as close to a “smoking riff” as you can get.
Also, Zeppelin has a long history of pretty brazenly appropriating material. A two-part YouTube video on the subject “Led Zeppelin plagiarism” plays, side-by-side, old versions of songs by the likes of blues legends Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, with Led Zeppelin songs. In all cases, the lyrics and/or music is “eerily similar,” except that Jimmy Page is credited as the composer. Both Dixon and Wolf sued Zeppelin, with the band reportedly settling the matters out of court.
Zeppelin is so flagrant that they planned to release this song on their next record:
It’s the same old song
Except that my name gets cre-dit for it and yours is gone
It’s the same old song
And I made a fortune from it, Boy, what a con
But then their lawyer advised them that maybe they want to take it down a notch.
So, Zeppelin is no innocent party. Still, some 43 years have passed. Up through 2008, it’s estimated that “Stairway” earned Zeppelin some $562 million in royalties and album sales, which is enough to build several stairways to heaven not to mention the moon. You’d think that Spirit might have filed a lawsuit when royalties reached 100 mil or so. Especially considering that Randy California reportedly spent some later hard-luck years performing in exchange for a meal. Associates described the guitarist as “laid back,” which is kind of an understatement, considering that shortly before he died, a full quarter-century after “Stairway” was released, California complained to Listener magazine, “I’d say it was a rip-off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me.”
Yeah. A $562 million “sore point.” Maybe California was like those people who can’t be bothered to play the lottery when the jackpot is “only” 50 or 75 million, but then waits on a two hour line when the pot reaches 300 million.
Attorneys say that in a lawsuit of this kind, a deciding factor can be if juries believe the songs sound alike.
Unfortunately, original Spirit bassist Mark Andes, who is involved in filing the suit, may not be the best witness for his side. In an interview in Bloomberg Businessweek, Andes is quoted as saying he only recently noticed how similar the two songs were. “The clarity seems to be a present-day clarity, not at the time of infringement. I can’t explain it. It is fairly blatant, and note for note.”
Andes’ explanation about “present day clarity” might be more plausible if he was suing over “Dazed and Confused.” (Another song Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarizing, albeit not by Spirit.)
The Internet is aflame, with proponents for both sides. The case has clearly, you might say, struck a chord.