Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven is undoubtedly one of the world’s best known and most successful songs. It became the most requested song on American FM radio in the 70s, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation estimates the number of radio plays it has received to be in excess of 3 million! All very impressive for a song that was never even released as a single.
However, recently the Supreme Court in America gave the relatives of Spirit’s Randy California the right to sue Led Zeppelin for plagiarism, saying that they stole the intro to Stairway from a short instrumental piece by Spirit called Taurus. If this is successful the cost to Zeppelin will undoubtedly run into millions of dollars.
While there are undoubted similarities, there has to be a difference between ‘sounds a bit like’ and ‘ripped off’. A few seconds of the song shares a similar descending guitar line as Stairway, but does this necessitate a court case? And if so, why has it taken so long for the case to be raised? California himself had no problem with it when the subject was raised in the 70s, saying “If they wanted to use [Taurus] that's fine," and generously "I'll let them have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit.” So this may well turn out to be the result of that old adage – “Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ”
In truth though, Zeppelin should be well used to accusation of plagiarism by now, so frequently have they occurred. It is hard to deny however that parts of their back catalogue could be better described as cover versions rather than original compositions. Listen to Jake Holmes signing Dazed and Confused and wonder why Zeppelin hold the copyright for the song that appears on their debut album. An out of court settlement was made with Homes in 2012, but even Led Zeppelin biographer Chris Welch describes the band as being “careless in crediting their sources of inspiration”.
One of the more famous plagiarism court cases was for George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord. According to Harrison, the song was the result of a jam session with Billy Preston and other friends, evolving around the use of ‘Hare Krishna’ and ‘Hallelujah’. Shortly after its release, a writ was issued by Bright Tunes, pointing out the similarities between the choruses between My Sweet Lord and He’s So Fine by The Chiffons. Bright contacted Harrison’s manager, Allen Klein and proposed a deal whereby they would own the rights to the single and pay Harrison royalties of 50% on US sales. All attempts to reach an out of court settlement both parties agreed on, the case went to court. In fact, Bright were so affronted by Klein’s offer of $148,000 that they changed their demands from 50% of US sales to 75% of worldwide sales. The case went badly for Harrison and he was found guilty of copyright infringement. The question then was how much the song had earned and what Bright’s share should be. The judge in the case ruled that, as Harrison had added different lyrics, he should be entitled to 25% of the song’s revenue that he should hand over in excess of $1,500,000 to Bright Tunes, a fact that rankled Harrison long after the case had ended.
Sampling technology brought a whole new argument to the plagiarism debate when artists started using direct lifts from other songs to create their own. An early casualty of court cases springing up from sampling were the KLF, whose album as The JAMS, ‘1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?)’ heavily used samples as the main part of its tracks. The inevitable showdown happened when Abba’s layers objected to use of the band’s track Dancing Queen and ordered the band to cease production and to destroy all remaining copies of the album. In an attempt to either reach an agreement (or to turn the situation into performance art), the KLF drove to Sweden in an attempt to meet with Abba. When this did not happen they presented a gold disc to a Swedish prostitute, drove to a remote field and burned all remaining copies of the album, attracting the attentions of an armed farmer wondering why huge plumes of black smoke were coming from one of his fields. The band then released the album without samples, leaving so much silence and so little content that it was deemed to be a 12” single rather than an album.
The Verve fell foul of plagiarism when they based Bittersweet Symphony on a sample from an instrumental version of the Rolling Stones song “The Last Time” that had appeared on an album credited to the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. The band cleared the rights to the instrumental through Decca records, but had not thought to clear it with the owners of the original copyright, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The Verve settled out of court, granting a staggering 100% of songwriting royalties to the pair. The irony here is that the sample used sounds nothing like The Last Time, so Jagger and Richards received a substantial payout, joint songwriting credits and a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year — not bad , considering they had no real involvement with the song and it didn’t sound anything like what they’d actually written.
More recently, Pharrell Williams wrote Blurred Lines for Robin Thicke before falling foul of the courts, this time for apparently plagiarising Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give it Up’. The stand out point from this particular court case, and one that may have worrying consequences for song writers going forward, is that the song neither sampled the original nor used any of its melody, but rather copied the “vibe”. Music layer Josh Kaplan stated “"I think that saying that Pharrell and Thicke were inspired by a feeling that they gleaned somehow from Marvin Gaye is definitely new territory in copyright infringement". Given that all new music is arguably influenced by what has gone before, this precedent may well rear its head again in the future. As it is, Williams paid 7.4 million dollars to Gaye’s family and who can forget the sight of Gaye’s sobbing daughter Nona saying that they were “Free from Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s chains” as she cried, presumably, all the way to the bank. Williams lawyer Howard King said that “Should the verdict be allowed to stand, a terrible precedent will have been established that will deter the record labels that fund new music from getting involved with creations built on the shoulders of other composers. No longer will it be safe to create music in the same style or genre of a prior song”
With the tears still wet on their faces, the Gaye family let it be known that they also thing Williams’ global hit Happy sounds like Ain’t That Peculiar. King stated that “this matter is not finished by any stretch of the imagination”. It may well be that those words will prove to be prophetic for many more songs and songwriters going forward
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