British rock band Led Zeppelin effectively won a long running legal battle on Monday over claims that they stole the opening guitar riff for their classic song “Stairway to Heaven.”
The US Supreme Court declined to take up a copyright case against the band, meaning that a decision made in March this year by a US appeals court will stand.
The lower court in California court ruled that Led Zeppelin had not copied musician Randy Wolfe in the opening guitar riff to the song.
The Supreme Court’s move to not take up the case has effectively ended the legal challenge, which could have had massive effects on the music industry.
“Stairway To Heaven” is one of the most popular songs in rock music history. But was it really written by Jimmy Page (right) and Robert Plant (center)? The heirs of Randy Wolfe, singer and guitarist of the band Spirit, expressed some strong doubts about that in 2014. On March 9, 2020, a US appeals court reinstated a ruling that Led Zeppelin did not steal “Stairway to Heaven” from Wolfe’s piece.
It can’t be denied that Lana Del Rey’s song “Get Free” sounds a lot like “Creep,” Radiohead’s famous hit. The band therefore wants writers’ credits on the song. Ironically, some parts of “Creep” have been copied as well, namely from The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe” from 1974. In this case, the two bands came to an extrajudicial agreement.
The music industry has recently been haunted by numerous plagiarism controversies. In 2014, Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” triggered some uproar. The song was said to have been inspired by Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Rock legend Petty (1950 – 2017) then obtained some of the royalties. But he wasn’t angry, stating that the similarities may have occurred incidentally.
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were less lucky. After it turned out that their successful hit “Blurred Lines” was a rip-off of Marvin Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up,” they had to dig deep into their pockets. In 2013, they had to pay roughly seven million dollars to Gaye’s heirs, even though they continued to deny that they had copied Gaye’s song.
In one case, just two seconds of sound resulted in a 20-year lawsuit that raised the question: Where does plagiarism start, especially in the digital era? Music producer Moses Pelham sampled two seconds of the beat of “Metall auf Metall,” a hit of the German band Kraftwerk, for the song “Nur mir” of rapper Sabrina Setlur. The case ended up before the European Court of Justice.
Yet another pop star accused of plagiarism is Shakira. In 2014, a US federal court came to the conclusion that her hit “Loca” was an illegal copy of the song “Loca con su Tiguere” by Ramón Arias Vásquez from the Dominican Republic. Several million records of Shakira’s “Loca” were sold all over the world.
It was US journalist Andrea Pitzer who noticed that roughly 20 sentences of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize speech were copied. Dylan made use of an online interpretation aid for students of Melville’s classical novel “Moby Dick” without however mentioning the source.
Plagiarism also abounds in the world of art. US artist Jeff Koons, a representative of pop art, had to pay €20,000 in damages after a Paris-based court found that his porcelain statue “Naked” was an imitation of a work by French photographer Jean-François Bauret.
The case was originally filed in 2014 by musician Randy Wolfe’s estate, as Wolfe died in 1997 and never took legal action. Wolfe’s band, Spirit, had Led Zeppelin as an opening act during the British band’s first US tour in 1968. The song in question was written in 1971.
Experts called by the plaintiffs in lower courts said there were substantial similarities between Spirit’s song “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” But defensive witnesses said the chord progression in Led Zeppelin’s song was so common that copyright did not apply.
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page had said in a 2016 jury trial in Los Angeles that he had not heard “Taurus” until recently.
The US appeals court decision impacted more than just classic rock music. It was also key in ending a similar six-year copyright case involving pop star Katy Perry and her song “Dark Horse.”
The Led Zeppelin decision prompted a judge to throw out the verdict in the Katy Perry case, clearing her of charges that she copied Christian rapper Flame.
kbd/rs (AFP, Reuters)