Music

Copyright Case Against 'Stairway to Heaven' Goes Down Like a Lead Zeppelin

The jury reached the right decision.

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Even Led Zeppelin is innocent sometimes. A jury just ruled that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did not plagiarize the Spirit song "Taurus" when they composed the classic-rock warhorse "Stairway to Heaven."

There is no question in my mind that the jurors reached the right decision. I say that even though the two songs undeniably open with similar guitar riffs, as you can hear in this side-by-side comparison:

There is a difference between being similar and identical, and there are some clear differences between the two guitar parts. That in itself might not have been enough to save Zeppelin in the wake of last year's "Blurred Lines" case, when Marvin Gaye's estate successfully sued Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke over a song that copied the "feel" but not the actual notes of Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." But in this case, riffs that sound vaguely like the start of "Stairway" have been around a lot longer than the Spirit record. Davy Graham's version of "Cry Me a River," recorded a decade before "Taurus," is a case in point:

But why start in the '50s? Giovanni Battista Granata composed "Sonata di Chittarra, e Violino, con il suo Basso Continuo" three and a half centuries ago, and you can hear an obvious precursor to the "Stairway" opening about 35 seconds into the piece:

If Led Zeppelin ripped off Spirit, then both bands ripped off Granata—and Granata's work is in the public domain, as are any other examples of this musical idea that precede him. So even under the far-too-restrictive set of rules that make up modern copyright law, everyone is free to do as they please with this age-old sequence of sounds. Led Zeppelin's members may be guilty of all kinds of criminal debauchery, depending on how much credence you put in that copy of Hammer of the Gods your pals were passing around in high school. Hell, there are genuine cases of them lifting from other artists' work. But in this instance, I think it's clear that there's no infringement.

Thankfully, the jury agreed. As Aram Sinnreich wrote earlier this month, "if the bar for [proving] copyright infringement gets lower, then the risk of getting sued gets higher—especially in the world of pop, where music tends to be both highly formulaic and highly profitable. Greater risk means higher cost, which means that only the companies with the deepest pockets and the best lawyers can afford to bring new music to market." A loss today would have been a loss for bands with far less cash and influence than Led Zeppelin.

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  1. The real question was: did Taurus backmask satanic lyrics?

    1. Oh here’s to my sweet Satan

      1. No, but I hear if you play Fresh Garbage backwards, you have an unquenchable urge to put non-recyclables in with the recyclables – WITHOUT RINSING.

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  2. Imagine the lawsuits you would get from the “Bo Diddley” beat! – Kevin R

    1. If all of them were won, those holding Bo Diddley’s assets would be neck and neck with the Sultan of Brunei.

    2. It’s a standard cadence that has been used by military bands since the 1700s.

      -jcr

  3. This is good news. Everyone who has dabbled in music knows there is a limited number of combinations you can do with 12 notes. Sometimes songs sound similar, most musicians want to be new and fresh, they don’t typically rob other artists of their intellectual property.

    1. And there is an even more limited number of things you can do with 12 notes that will sound any good to the general music consuming public. Things that are easily accessible to most consumers generally are going to sound a bit like other music they are already familiar with.

    1. Pretty sure Clyde would never have had any personal rights to his performance. James Brown pretty much paid his musicians on spec, and retained writing/production credits. I think (can’t remember) that it was the subject of one of the sampling lawsuits in the 1980s. (w/ Public Enemy I’d guess)

      I think the law has also historically distinguished between usage of drum breaks versus melodic looped segments of recordings; in particular when the former have been at least chopped/modified to some degree… fair use can often apply.

      Whereas using the “hook” from a recognizable tune gets you into hotter water, legally. The famous case was w/ Biz Markie in the late 80s/early 90s, which sort of set the mold for the whole sampling issue

      1. The sampling restrictions seem like bullshit too. No one is buying a song containing a sample of your music instead of your music. So you aren’t losing anything. Should be fair use if you ask me.

        Seems to me that the only reasonable purpose for copyright protection is to prevent someone from simply appropriating your work and publishing it without compensating you.

        1. But where do you draw the line at “appropriating your work”? Two bars? Six bars? Thirty-two bars? An identical drum beat? or chord progression? or melody? No clear definition of how much of a song constitutes “your work” is possible. That’s why we have these silly lawsuits?pushing the envelope in the hope of a payoff. Sometimes it works.

          Songs should not be copyrightable at all.

          1. By “appropriating” I mean (in the case of a song) selling the exact same song. Copyright was (maybe) necessary because if you published a book there was nothing to stop someone from immediately just printing and selling their own copies and taking sales away from you.

            I’m not sure how I feel about IP at all, but if we are going to have it I think it’s reasonable to copyright published sheet music or a specific recording.

            1. “Copyright was (maybe) necessary because if you published a book there was nothing to stop someone from immediately just printing and selling their own copies and taking sales away from you.”

              The lack of scarcity doesn’t by itself prove scarcity must be artificially created. What you have there is just a bad business model that requires govt monopoly protection to survive.

              At least the argument needs to claim some kind of benefit to society in return, i.e. supposedly people would not create any art or whatever unless they were protected. (rant time) Arguments about IP have lost sight of this and nowadays seem to be mainly based on moral defenses of some silly new natural right.

              1. Yeah, I pretty much agree. I’m not entirely sure IP protections are necessary or moral. But if it should exist, it shouldn’t be about owning a particular sound or even specific musical (or literary) passage, but about protecting creators from losing money because people copied their stuff and sold it. Whether that is actually necessary or useful is another debate.

                1. … protecting creators from losing money because people copied their stuff and sold it…

                  The problem there is that no money is “lost”. Sales of a plagurized or “pirated” work do not pick the original artist’s pocket nor debit his account balance; nothing is actually stolen (i.e. taken from his possession and diminishing his wealth or value accordingly).

                  At best, you might argue that the original artist is potentially deprived of some revenue that was otherwise not recognized because someone bought a “pirated” copy instead. However, it is a preposterous argument that someone has a Right to the Proceeds of Possible Sales. [Imagine how the Democrats could tax us on our “Possible Income”…]

                  Furthermore, unless one is omniscient, there is no way of knowing that an illegitimate purchase represents a legitimate purchase not made. It is quite possible that illegitimate copies are bought because they are sold at a lower price point; that, barring the “bootleg”, the legitimate sales would never manifest anyway.

                  But, even if a buyer would have bought legitimately if he could not buy illegitimately, the artist is no poorer for the -loss- non-receipt of that revenue. He is no richer, either, but certainly not poorer than before.

            2. I think it’s reasonable to copyright published sheet music or a specific recording.

              But the law goes way beyond protecting specific publications or recordings. It confers ownership of “works”. There is no clear statute definition of what a “work” is in the case of pop songs, and, in my opinion, that isn’t even possible .

        2. The bigger problem with sampling is the songwriter gets the credit even though a performance is what is being sampled – often such a small piece of the performance that – if played by a pianist or violinst – would not even make the written song recognizable.

          At least it proves that the law is an ass. We have so much written law and so much case law that we essentially have legislated and tried our way into anarchy.

  4. What was the verdict on the charge of Led Zepplin being grossly overrated?

    1. Zepplin isn’t overrated. It’s just been copied so many times that it’s hard to understand what it meant in context.

      1. It had something to do with heroin and not shaving your pubes, right?

        1. If you want to be reductive like that, man.

      2. Yes?the context of being a nerdy 13-year-old boy with a guitar who thinks maybe he’s found a way to be popular.

        1. Easy to say that now. When it was new, it was pretty exciting and different (even though they were mostly ripping off old blues songs) to the rock and roll consuming audience. Now it’s all been played to death for 40 years, but it wasn’t always that way.

          1. Ripping off old blues songs was their best work. By “Houses of the Holy” they’ve lost me.

    2. Led Zepplin being grossly overrated?

      Compared to what?

        1. Its also been a much-covered/appropriated tune. according to wikipedia there are 270 different recordings of it now.

    3. Guilty. I can’t stand most of their songs. No melody, annoying screeching vocals, blah.

  5. No Stairway…Denied!

      1. Except that ain’t stairway.

        Home video releases changed the riff from what it was in theater.

      2. But I forgot the link.

    1. Dammit!

  6. So, in a word, Led Zeppelin got what it came for?

  7. Those legal bills must be a heavy load to carry.

  8. They wanted to buy some liquor to celebrate their victory, but the stores were all closed.

  9. The worst copyright case I know of was the one against Men at Work for “Down Under”. They got sued by a music company that bought the rights to a hundred year old Aussie nursury rhyme that has a similar riff to the flute in their song. They had to pay a large percentage of the gains on their biggest hit. The sax/flute guy killed himself shortly after the verdict.

    1. The “Kookaburra”‘ part? That’s obviously a reference to the song, but it’s idiotic to say that you can’t quote a well known traditional song in another song. That’s like saying that you can’t quote another book in your book. Sure, there is no specific attrribution in the song, but it’s obviously referring to the older song, not ripping it off.

      That pretty well illustrates what’s wrong with copyright law.

      1. It was the notes on the flute line that were similar to the Kookaburra Song. Since the song came out in the 80’s and the lawsuit was just a few years back they had to pay out royalties that they had presumably had spent.

  10. The lawyer for estate that brought the suit has issued the following statement:

    Nobody’s Fault But Mine

  11. Who’s to blame for what’s on Coda?

    1. John Bonham is to blame. Had he not died, most of that wouldn’t have been released.

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  13. You can make a Zeppelin out of lead that will float. The only reason to do it is bloody-mindedness, but you can.

    1. I don’t know. Does lead have the toughness and cohesion to hold together in a big enough structure? Seems like it might fall apart before it gets off the ground, assuming you could even build something that would contain enough helium or whatever that wouldn’t collapse under its own weight or burst from the internal pressure.

      1. I remember a Mythbusters episode where Adam and Jaime actually made a decently sized lead balloon that floated. I don’t think it was quite big enough to get a person up in a basket, but it might have been. They had to use really thin lead sheets that were in constant danger of tearing.

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  16. That Davy Graham intro seems more like Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” to me.

  17. In the end, let’s be honest. The whole infringement thing should be to make sure complete copying and undercutting someone with their own work with lower prices without royalty. Not a few bars or a few excerpts. We wouldn’t have this tight of interpretation if it weren’t for big pockets, the very reason such protection was created in the first place – to protect the little guy from big pockets (e.g. write a book and have a publishing house “steal” it and undercut you).

    It certainly is tough to actuate big versus small while trying to hold broadcast Force to a minimum.

  18. Goes to show the Robin Thicke jury doesn’t understand music and just didn’t like him.

  19. especially in the world of pop. . . music tends to be both highly formulaic and highly profitable. Greater risk means higher cost, which means that only the companies with the deepest pockets and the best lawyers can afford to bring new music to market

    The point – I think he stumbled upon it.

  20. At most it was 4 notes.

  21. The problem, as I see it, is that Led Zeppelin can dish it out but thet can’t take it. http://www.democraticundergrou…..05×3791805

    1. *they can’t take it, not “thet”

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