In anticipation of a remastered release of Led Zeppelin’s greatest hits, another band who used to share the stage with the legendary rockers is suing under copyright laws over one of the most iconic songs of the 20th century.
Spirit, which opened for Led Zeppelin in the late 1960s, recorded and performed a song, ‘Taurus’ during many shows.
The estate of the song’s deceased writer, Randy California, is now suing Stairway to Heaven writer and Led Zeppelin frontman, claiming he outright stole the song’s opening riff.
Here are the two songs side by side:
My reaction (and the reaction of my professional musician husband) was, “Meh.”
Richard California reportedly went public with his claims about the origin of Stairway to Heaven’s opening riff in 1997, but never went as far as suing.
“I’d say it was a ripoff,” California told Listener magazine. “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.”
Copyright infringement cases in music often have mixed results, but they do highlight one of the many shortcomings of the concept of intellectual property, and its enforcement in the US through copyright and trademark laws: the fine lines drawn in copyright suits are often too pencil thin.
One of the more famous musical copyright infringement cases was that of 1960s group The Chiffons versus former Beatles member George Harrison. Harrison was ultimately found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” and ordered to pay $587,000 in 1981.
Subconscious plagiarism is a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around. Almost all music (and arguably all art) is at some level influenced by other music. That’s one of the reasons the decade in which a song was recorded is almost immediately evident. At what point does an arrangement of a finite set of notes and chords become too similar to an existing arrangement? When does a re-expression of an existing picture, song or item cross over from infringement to art?
The problem is that we don’t know. Courts have pretty much stuck to a “I know it when I see it” test, but more often than not claims come to an out of court (and usually undisclosed) settlement.
The artist Girl Talk takes several songs and creates “mashups” that are often protected from needing to pay royalties to the original artist because they are covered under “fair use” laws, and the mashup “transforms” the songs into a new product.
So IP law establishes that similar sounding music can be exempt as a transformed art, but sometimes it isn’t. The law is by nature so open to interpretation that we end up with a Girl Talk-style mashup of judicial opinions and laws. Some artists get screwed, and some make bank. Almost no one ends up happy.
The never-ending argument between libertarians about whether or not IP law should even exist is certainly a heated one. How does a free market provide “protection” for innovators without stifling artistic expression? To me the answer is precisely in the process of innovation. In the world of music, record labels are quickly losing their significance. Between “Hipster” culture’s obsession with the newest music “you’ve probably never heard of”, and the internet’s relatively new capability of delivering individual songs straight to your smartphone in less than 60 seconds, the need for a middleman for musicians to gain prominence is diminishing.
The ability of consumers to quickly and easily gain access to new music makes it easier for them to identify who is a successful innovator in music, and who is just ripping someone else off.
Copyright laws probably aren’t going anywhere, but similar improvements in technology will hopefully soon make them irrelevant.