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Thread June 18, 2016 editorial: comments

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1 June 18, 2016 editorial: comments

Stairway to Plagiarism?

If you were to make a list of iconic bands from the “classic rock” era, Led Zeppelin would certainly be near the top. You can use many words to describe their music including “powerful,” “memorable,” “heavy” and “psychedelic.” Unfortunately, many will allege that another adjective should accompany some of their songs: “stolen.”

The subject of the band’s supposed penchant for “borrowing” others’ musical ideas has come to the fore once again, as the trial has started in the lawsuit originally filed in 2014 by the estate of Randy California from the band Spirit. The plaintiffs allege that the Zepsters pilfered a section of their song “Taurus,” for the intro “Stairway to Heaven.”

This is not the first time Page, Plant and company have had to deal with copyright infringement charges. Back in “the day” (which in this case refers to 1972), the publishing company associated with Chess Records sued Led Zeppelin for infringing on the copyrights of blues greats Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf in the songs “Bring it on Home” and “The Lemon Song,” respectively. The case was settled out court, so there was never any verdict reached.

You can find others who will argue that the band is guilty of poaching songs on a number of other occasions, too. This article from the Music Times, lists the Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf songs, along with a number of others in which infringement, which you could also refer to as “larceny by composition,” is alleged. 

The surviving members of Led Zeppelin were in court this week, and Page and John Paul Jones were both on the stand, testifying on their own behalf. If you’ve heard the Spirit song “Taurus,” you’ll understand why this came to trial. Listen at around 45 seconds in, for the passage in question.

I don’t pretend to understand the legal minutiae when it comes to defining copyright infringement, but from hearing that section of “Taurus,” you have to wonder what Page and Plant were thinking when writing the "Stairway" intro. It’s true that it’s a pretty common chord progression, but the similarities are pretty striking.

Then again, if you’ve ever written a song or other piece of music and then later realized that it sounded just like something you’d heard before, you know that it’s certainly possible to subconsciously copy something and think it’s your own, without having any larcenous intent. However, considering Led Zeppelin’s less-than-spotless history in this area (to put it charitably), it does make one wonder. It will be interesting to see the outcome of this trial. 

Take a listen to “Taurus” and see what you think (here’s a link to it on YouTube).

 

[ Post last edited on 06/18/2016 at 14:46:27 ]

2
"Whole Lotta Love" and "You Shook Me (All Night Long) were the other Wille Dixon-penned Chess songs that the 'Zep had to pay out on. It must be said however, that they were not the only ones to have "covered" Willie Dixon songs in this way. In a casual glance at his Wikipedia entry, there are at least 100 different recorded performances of Willie Dixon's originals, which include "Hoochie Coochie Man", "Little Red Rooster", "I just wanna make love to you", and many many others it's no wonder that when he was asked about the origin of the Blues in a Europe interview, his response was: "Man, I AM The Blues!"

As for the Taurus/Stairway guitar figure, my understanding is that once 8 contiguous bars of a music phrase are similar in two different songs, then THE FIRST IN TIME SHALL PREVAIL. This gives the Randy California camp a pretty strong case going forward. Then again, IANAL (I am not a lawyer),
3
What you forgot to mention in your original post is that Spirit was openning for Zep in concert. So it's hard to dismiss the fact that they had in fact heard the song in question many times. :non:
4
That lik does not take me to Taurus on Utube - it goes to an apple page about iOS10.
5
Every time I hear the word, "plagiary" as it is applied to music composition, I begin to chuckle. Sometimes I even 'chortle'. All musicians know that there are but so many notes available on any scale. The chances, that while constructing a melodic line, you're going to duplicate someone else's stuff is more likely possible than not. Depending on the popularity (or familiarity) of a particular piece will probably determine whether or not you're going to get sued. I also heard about Led Zeppelin's penchant for "pilfering" catchy phrases derived from others. Even the famous and highly respected Les Paul was successfully sued for "stealing" a Romanian composer's work. There have been so many famous bands and single artists who faced the legal system for plagiarism, it could probably fill up a small text book.

As you accurately point out, sometimes accidental or "unconscious" plagiarism is possible. However, when a musician or musicians set a pattern or have a history for this kind of behavior, I don't believe the word "accidental" can be applied. I've always wondered how many obscure songs, written by some unknown composer, have been outright stolen by some famous composer and then touted as an "original" composition. Probably, a boatload.

Music composition is a tough gig. It's a shame that there are some, who have grown fat, famous and wealthy off the creativity of others.
6
Quote:
That lik does not take me to Taurus on Utube - it goes to an apple page about iOS10.

Sorry about the bad link. Here is the correct one for "Taurus."
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xd8AVbwB_6E
7
Quote:
What you forgot to mention in your original post is that Spirit was openning for Zep in concert. So it's hard to dismiss the fact that they had in fact heard the song in question many times. :non:

I didn't realize that. I would think that fact will help the prosecution's case.
8
Quote:
As for the Taurus/Stairway guitar figure, my understanding is that once 8 contiguous bars of a music phrase are similar in two different songs, then THE FIRST IN TIME SHALL PREVAIL. This gives the Randy California camp a pretty strong case going forward.

Based on that, it sounds like Page, Plant and Jones may very well be ponying up some $$ sometime soon.
9
Quote:
However, when a musician or musicians set a pattern or have a history for this kind of behavior, I don't believe the word "accidental" can be applied.

It certainly makes it a lot harder to explain.
10
Led Zeppelin's real crime is that they made too much money. There have been a rash of recent copyright infringement lawsuits of late and in my opinion as a composer most including this one are frivolous. The motivation for suing in behalf of one's estate is all about money, and I'm talking about money for the lawyers that initiate the suit, not the estate. As long as there's money to be made from frivolous lawsuits they will continue to drain more money away from artists and stifle creativity.

I do feel for the old blues artists who gave so much to the world and died broke, but history may repeat itself based on the current music business paradigm.