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Why the Jury Should Back Led Zeppelin in the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Case

June 14, 2016, 2:23 PM UTC
Led Zeppelin in Concert at Chicago Stadium - 1-20-1975
Photo by Laurance Ratner—WireImage

I’m a big Led Zeppelin fan, I admit. Their wailing guitar orgies served as a soundtrack to much of my high school life, and I still crank up “Immigrant Song” or “Kashmir” in a car from time to time. But that’s not why I think a jury should side with the band in a milestone copyright case kicking off in Los Angeles today.

The court case, if you haven’t heard, pits Zeppelin frontmen Jimmy Page and Robert Plant against the estate of a guitarist named Randy Wolfe, who wrote a song called “Taurus.” The estate claims the iconic opening chords of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” are lifted directly from “Taurus” and that the band never gave Wolfe a cent for using his music.

How similar are the two songs? Here is how U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner described the works (via Ars Technica) in a ruling earlier this year that said the question was a matter for a jury:

The similarity consists of repeated A-minor descending chromatic bass lines lasting 13 seconds and separated by a bridge of either seven or eight measures. Moreover, the similarity appears in the first two minutes of each song, arguably the most recognizable and important segments of the respective works.

Page, the Zeppelin guitarist, argues the chord sequence is a basic piece of music that shouldn’t be subject to a copyright claim. He and Plant have both denied hearing Wolfe’s song at time “Stairway” came out.

Here is how Page sees it:

The beginning of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ includes a descending chromatic line chord progression and arpeggios, over which I played an ascending line. I consider descending chromatic lines and arpeggiated chords basic skills learned by any student of the guitar. Certainly, as a guitarist, I was aware of descending chromatic lines and arpeggios long before 1968.

I’m not a musician, so I can’t profess to say if the chords in “Taurus” are original enough to deserve copyright protection. But I have no problem saying that if there’s even the slightest doubt, the jury should throw this lawsuit to the curb immediately.

The reason is simple: “Stairway to Heaven,” which came out in 1971, is 45 years old. Meanwhile, “Taurus” is even older, and Randy Wolfe has been dead for almost four decades.

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This is not about recognition or respect for artists, or anything like that. It is a cash grab, plain and simple, and one that is damaging to musicians and the music industry. As intellectual property scholar David Post put it in the Washington Post, cases like the Led Zeppelin one are not about principle but someone trying to make a buck:

One tip-off that usually indicates that it’s only about the money: Lots of copyright litigation begins with a claim not by the author of the work in question, who usually does care about the work, but by his or her heirs, or institutional assignees of the original copyright, who really don’t care much about the work but care a lot about the stream of licensing revenues it produces — and continues to produce year after year after year, long after the author or artist’s death.)

The problem is getting worse lately as lawyers deploy music-matching technology in order to mine older music and find similar songs. This month, for instance, a court ruled that a short horn sample on Madonna’s dance hit “Vogue” did not count as infringement.

None of this benefits artists. Instead, it has created a bonanza for lawyers while also introducing a chilling effect for musicians who now must worry that any piece of music they play will be grounds for a future copyright lawsuit. While Led Zeppelin has a reputation for using the music of others—particularly bluesmen—without attribution, those other musicians gain nothing from lawsuits that take place many decades after they’re gone.

Much of these problems stem from a 2014 Supreme Court decision that effectively lifted the statute of limitations for copyright claims. As a result, more and more people, egged on by lawyers, are coming out of the woodwork to seek a payout from older music. The Supreme Court may come to recognize its mistake and reintroduce rules to require plagiarism claims to be filed in a timely fashion.

Until that occurs, the Los Angeles jury should side with music and back Led Zeppelin in its copyright case.