Rock musicians across America are likely breathing a sigh of relief after a federal jury in California found that Led Zeppelin did not steal from another band in creating “Stairway to Heaven,” radio’s all-time most requested rock song.
If the British rock band had been found liable in civil case, many analysts said, it could have created a chilling effect across the industry. Rock ‘n’ roll and all its subgenres have historically built upon influences that preceded them, including repeated chord progressions.
But juries don’t always see it the same way. Just last year, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams lost a lawsuit to the family of Marvin Gaye regarding their song “Blurred Lines.” The family claimed it was cribbed from Gaye’s disco classic “Got to Give It Up,” and a jury agreed — to the tune of $7.4 million.
Attorneys for the plaintiff in the “Stairway to Heaven” suit were arguing for a much bigger payday for their clients, upwards of $40 million, in addition to a songwriting credit for the late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California. Wolfe’s estate sued Zeppelin, claiming that the 45-year-old classic rock anthem unfairly stole elements from Spirit’s obscure instrumental “Taurus.”
Had the eight-person jury come back with a decision for the plaintiff — particularly one with damages anywhere near that $40 million — it might have made any artist fearful of accidentally creating a tune that replicated an element of hundreds of thousands of songs that preceded it. After all, there’s a finite number of musical notes and chords, and only so many configurations of these are pleasing to the ear.
That’s not to say all popular musicians are in the clear. It probably won’t be too long before another artist faces copyright infringement allegations in court — but it might make it less likely for musicians to demand civil action if they hear something that resembles one of their compositions in a popular song.
Pitchfork senior staff writer Marc Hogan wrote earlier this month: "The trial puts a focus on the gymnastic arbitrariness of copyright law in the digital age. Now that YouTube and social media make it easy for the public to see how almost everything sounds like something else, at what point do we decide the similarities are inappropriate?"
Despite ultimately being victorious today, one thing working against Zeppelin — in addition to the relatively recent "Blurred Lines" verdict, that is — was its questionable history when it came to straddling the fine line between homage and theft.
"Led Zeppelin has a long history of what might be politely called musical appropriation," New Yorker music critic Alex Ross noted in April. He specifically cited Zeppelin's classic 1969 track "Dazed and Confused," which not only "draws liberally" from a 1967 song by Jake Holmes — it shares the exact same title.
After Holmes sued Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page for copyright infringement in 2010, the band credited Holmes with "inspiring" its version of the song. In the "Stairway to Heaven" trial, the plaintiff listed that track and five other songs for which the band reached settlements over songwriting credits.
But Ross, along with many other music critics and analysts, pointed out that this is nothing new. He wrote: "Yet if 'Stairway to Heaven' is plagiarized, so is a good portion of the classical canon. Bach, the master of them all, routinely helped himself to the music of colleagues and predecessors."
In the Zeppelin case, jurors deliberated for several hours after closing arguments on Wednesday and were excused for the evening. According to a report by Billboard, they returned this morning and asked to hear the two songs once again. A half-hour later, they delivered their verdict.
They jury agreed with assertions by the plaintiff (Michael Skidmore, representing Wolfe's estate) that he owned the copyright to Taurus and that members of Led Zeppelin had heard the song. However, they said they found "no substantial similarity" between the two compositions in finding for the defendants.
Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant released a statement following the verdict: "We are grateful for the jury's conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origin of 'Stairway to Heaven' and confirming what we have known for 45 years."
Last Modified: June 23, 2016, 8:55 pm