This week, the music industry will hold its breath as it watches deliberations in Los Angeles Federal Court between iconic rock band Led Zeppelin and lesser-known rock group Spirit.
Allegations against Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, two of the band’s founding members, claim the famous acoustic guitar opening to “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin’s 1971 signature hit, “plays arpeggiated chords in a descending pattern.” The copyright suit against Plant and Page claims that this very same descending pattern was copied from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental song “Taurus.”
Francis Malofiy, the lead lawyer representing Spirit, claims that Plant and Page had heard the Spirit song when both bands crossed paths on the road in late 1968-’69. Page and Plant denied that claim, insisting that “Stairway to Heaven” was written independently. In recent news, Plant and Page have argued that, “the commonalities between the songs are generic elements in musical composition that go back decades, and the core of the pieces in question are little more than a basic chord progression.”
The decision by Led Zeppelin to fight this claim puts a potential $40 million verdict in the hands of jurors, who will have to determine how similar the opening sequences of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” are—and whether the song element was stolen.
In a recent court filing, Led Zeppelin’s lawyers claim “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” the chimney sweep’s anthem from the 1964 film “Mary Poppins” features a similar arrangement and that “the descending chromatic scale of pitches” is too common to enjoy legal protection.
Interestingly enough, just a few years ago, Led Zeppelin settled a copyright suit with Jake Holmes over the cult-classic song “Dazed and Confused” (1969), and subsequent releases of the song on Zeppelin’s albums have the song listed as “written by Mr. Page and “inspired by Jake Holmes.”
In fairness to Spirit, they are a legit band. Older readers will likely be familiar with their 1968 hit, “I Got a Line on You.”
And the decision by Led Zeppelin to fight this claim puts a potential $40 million verdict in the hands of jurors, who will have to determine how similar the opening sequences of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” are and whether the song element was stolen.
This suit is actually just one of many copyright suits to be brought forward in the mainstream music scene throughout recent years in. Last year Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams were order to pay $7.4 million (later reduced to $5.3 million) to the estate of Marvin Gaye over “Blurred Lines.” Two months later, five co-writers were added to Mark Ronson’s hit, “Uptown Funk,” which went on the win a Grammy. And earlier this year Sam Smith agreed to change the credits to “Stay with Me,” which has more than 3.5 million paid downloads in the US alone. Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, who co-wrote the Petty hit “I Won’t Back Down” have received writing credit alongside Mr. Smith and his two writing partners.
The question we’re left with: Is more music being stolen these days, or is it just that more lawyers are smelling blood?
After all, the Spirit/Zeppelin case covers music released more than 40 years ago. Because the case focuses on songwriting, rather than on the recording of the song, the jury must base its decision on the written version of “Taurus” that was used to register its copyright. As in the “Blurred Lines” trial, the jury may hear versions of the two songs as presented by music experts retained by both the plaintiff and defense. So below, you’ll find both songs “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven,” as well as the guitar tabs from each song’s introduction. Mere coincidence or rock ’n’ roll thievery? Let us know what you think!