By Alex Born
Some of the biggest and most controversial music news as of late has been whether the chords in the intro of Led Zeppelin's famous song Stairway to Heaven were copied from a song called Taurus by the band Spirit. Family members of the late Spirit frontman Randy Craig Wolfe are seeking monetary damages and a writing credit from Led Zeppelin. If the jury agrees that the part was copied, Randy Wolfe's estate could get up to 50 million dollars.
Some Things to Consider:
- Wolfe's lawyers need to prove that Jimmy Page, who wrote and played the intro that is under scrutiny, had prior knowledge of 'Taurus' and deliberately neglected attribution. 'Taurus' was copyrighted in 1968 and 'Stairway' was copyrighted in 1971. The bands toured together at one point and were therefore familiar with each other's music, so it will be hard to disprove that.
- Led Zeppelin's lawyers need to prove that either Page had no prior knowledge of the Spirit song, or that the passage in question does not belong to anyone. In other words, they need to prove that the intro is simply a chord progression and not unique enough to be considered intellectual property.
- The music in question is a simple chord progression dictated by chromatically descending bass movement: A min - A minor (maj7)/G# - A minor 7/G - D/F# - F major 7.
- Jimmy Page & Robert Plant have a history of copying material and they've admitted to it. Namely, 'Dazed and Confused' from Jake Holmes, 'Whole Lotta Love' from Willie Dixon by way of The Small Faces, and 'Babe I'm Gonna Leave You' from Anne Bredon in a song sung by Joan Baez.
I'm usually pretty hard to convince on these copyright cases, because it usually goes something to the tune of: Musical juggernaut of a song and/or band accused by lesser known artist or estate thereof, seeking monetary compensation and/or songwriting credit, long after the fact. It comes down to this: everyone wants a shot at the champ.
But I think the Wolfe estate has a case. I don't think that a chord progression can be copyrighted, however I think that Stairway copied much more than just the chords and deliberately neglected attribution.
If You're Gonna Cheat, Don't Be Sloppy About It
When I was going to engineering school and commuting from St. Paul, I had a teacher in who I admired because he was just the straightest shooter I have ever met. He used to say, "If you're gonna cheat, do it right!" because some students would turn in work that was obviously copied from somewhere else because they neglected to change the font characteristics from the web page they copied it from. It was insulting to the teacher's intelligence to overlook such trivial and easily fixable details.
Let's be honest: copying is a part of playing and learning music. When you are learning your instrument and your craft, you learn things played by other people in order to better grasp a style of playing, a way of navigating a musical grid, or just what has been done before. There is considerable value in having the ability to reproduce a groove, mood, or even lick. That being said, there are so many things a musician can do to change every other element except the notes: change the tempo, change the key, change the groove, change the other instruments, change the instrument the notes are played on, change the role of the passage in the structure of the song, etc.
Yet 'Stairway' has so many similar elements besides just the notes that I think it is a case of sloppy copying. Same key, same tempo give or take 10%, same instrument, same mood, both are intros. First impression is a solid indicator and I made the connection right away. With other lawsuits like the Robin Thicke & Pharrell 'Blurred Lines' lawsuit and Joe Satriani v. Coldplay, my first impression of the passages in question were, 'Yeaaaaahhhhhh that's kind of a stretch.'
I am wary of copyright trolling and concerned about how it would affect music, but I think the resemblance is just too close to deny. I mean come on, there are only 12 notes in the western system of music, how bad are we going to let it get? But it's another thing to copy something and be sloppy about it, without asking for an expert musical opinion before laying something to track. Do yourself a favor and educate yourself, cover your bases.
Hear it for yourself: here is a good mashup of the two songs back to back, make sure you listen to the guitar part.