Copyright Infringement to Heaven: Popular Music’s Love of “Borrowing” From Those Who Came Before


Image via scienceblogs.com

There was an episode of The Simpsons a few years ago in which Homer and the gang were visiting England. While riding a ferris wheel, Homer makes the following observation:

“There’s Big Ben; there’s Piccadilly Circus; there’s Jimmy Page, the greatest thief of American black music who ever walked the Earth; Oh, there’s the kids.”

At the time, the copyright infringement legal woes of Page and his mates in Led Zeppelin were well documented, making the line a rather humorous dig at the venerable British rockers. However, with this week’s news of the potential for another legal battle, we find that Homer’s quote takes on additional meaning.

With the planned re-release of 1971′s Led Zeppelin IV , there are questions of whether or not the estate of late Spirit guitarist Randy California will ask Zeppelin to take a paternity test for their magnum opus, “Stairway to Heaven,” due to its eerie similarity to their 1968 instrumental, “Taurus.”

Let’s face it, the iconic, finger-picked acoustic guitar riff that opens “Stairway” falls within the same chord progression and melody as the Spirit tune. Throw in the fact that Zeppelin actually toured with Spirit in the late 60′s and you have to admit that this sounds like it may be a little more than coincidence. Compare for yourself:

Spirit’s “Taurus”

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”

While I don’t want to go into the ins and outs of how California’s estate plans to file a suit (there’s a great article on Forbes that explains the technicalities of the statute of limitations on copyright infringement), I figured the more appropriate and fun discussion for a blog on Untied, would be about the always fun world of musicians appropriating the work of others.

While imitation may be the highest form of flattery, once you encroach on the potential for royalties, the gloves really come off. More over, we no longer live in the truly “folk” tradition. Instead of engendering the oral tradition, we live in a world where the artist’s cut of the $0.99 download on iTunes is King, so buzz off.

As mentioned before, this isn’t Zep’s first rodeo. They’ve landed in hot water before, probably most famously for “Whole Lotta Love” and what would seem to be a word for word lift of blues man Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love.” But they are hardly the only artists to wind up getting the lawyers out. Now some ground rules before I get all listy on you: I am staying clear of parody and sampling. Why, haven’t there been issues there too? Yes. But there was always intent to sound like or outright borrow the audio from earlier recordings, all denials from Vanilla Ice aside.

1. The Great Coldplay/Joe Satriani Fight

Everyone knows Coldplay. They’re huge, multi-platinum artists.  Now, I dare you to ask your friends what they thought of Joe Satriani’s last album and you’re likely to get more than one “Who?” In 2008, Satriani, an instrumental guitarist and occasional instructor (some of his more famous students include Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Primus’ Larry LaLonde), filed a suit against Coldplay over the title track of their 2008 record Viva la Vida, claiming that it bore too much similarity to his 2004 instrumental “If I Could Fly.” The suit was settled out of court. Like the “Stairway”/”Taurus” issue, this one is pretty unmistakable.

2. My Sweet Lord..erm…I mean…He’s So Fine…

George Harrison released “My Sweet Lord” as the single from his 1970 solo debut All Things Must Pass. The song was a huge hit; going to number 1 on the charts in the year of its release and again in 2002 following Harrison’s death. For 1960′s New York girl group, The Chiffons, the song bore a strange resemblance to their 1963 song, “He’s So Fine.” The courts forced Harrison to pay roughly $1.6 million in royalties.

3. John Fogerty plagiarizes…himself?

The breakup of John Fogerty’s previous band, Creedence Clearwater Revival is the stuff of rock and roll legend. Fogerty’s exit from CCR included his selling of the rights to all of his songs (he was principal songwriter) to their record label, Fantasy Records. When he released his smash hit solo album Centerfied in 1985, the bad blood was stirred up again due to the presence of several songs on the record. The first song, “Zanz Kant Danz” was a fairly apparent dig at Fantasy Records Executive Saul Zaentz. Zaentz filed a defamation of character suit, forcing Fogerty to change the title of the song to “Vanz Kant Danz.” The second song,  “The Old Man Down the Road,” landed Fogerty with a lawsuit alleging it ripped off “Run Through the Jungle,” a tune Fogerty had written with CCR. As the story goes, Fogerty had to bring his guitar into the court room to play the two songs to show their differences. The court ruled that the songs were fundamentally different but shared an idiosyncratic style due to the fact they had the same guy writing them.

I’ll be honest, the most shocking of the above cases is the Fogerty one. If he had lost, think of the mess that the legal precedent would have created. It could have paved the way for some disgruntled Metallica member or A&R man to sue someone for using the same Am-C-G-E(Em) chord progression that they use in “Fade to Black,” “The Unforgiven,” and “The Unforgiven II.”

But back to our friends in Led Zeppelin. If previous cases and the band’s previous legal activity have taught us anything, they should prepare for either a nasty court fight or sizable settlement.

I'm boring

Sean Sheehan

I dig music. I take pictures on film cameras. Star Wars is pretty cool, too.
I'm boring