On May 10, Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page will be on trial in front of a jury on the matter of songwriting credit for the renowned “Stairway to Heaven.” Michael Skidmore, a trustee of the estate of Randy Wolfe, the guitarist of Spirit, has filed a suit claiming that the finger picked opening to “Stairway to Heaven” derived from Spirit’s song “Taurus.”
This lawsuit is another chapter in a long series of claims for accreditation. Last year, Marvin Gaye’s heirs alleged that “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams copied Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Other artists including Mariah Carey, Men at Work, Radiohead and Avril Levigne have been sued on the basis of copyright and intellectual property.
However, intellectual property is a messy subject, especially concerning the arts and the matter of inspiration versus plagiarism. Copyright and the protection of intellectual property is a relatively new concern. Classical composers like Bach and his contemporaries openly borrowed from each other in their work. Therefore, the mechanisms of the matter in law are still being worked out. The decisions of this case will affect the freedom of future artists to create freely.
Led Zeppelin has been known to borrow from other artists. In 2010, Jake Holmes filed a suit concerning the Led Zeppelin song “Dazed and Confused,” which borrows from Holmes’ song with the same name. Reissues of Led Zeppelin’s albums have added the names of Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Anne Bredon to the credits because they made strong claims to the music.
When it comes to Led Zeppelin, fans are aware of their eclectic borrowing habit. However, the similarities between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” are not clear enough to make the case for anything more than inspiration.
The descending base line that is under speculation has been popular for centuries; both Bach and Purcell used it in their compositions. It is so popular, that music critic and author Alex Ross dedicated an entire chapter of his book, “Listen to This,” to it.
This pattern, often called the basso lamento, became popular in the Baroque period. Its popularity lessened throughout the Romantic period but arose once again in the 1960s and 70s. There are many other songs from that era that also include this motif. “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” from “Mary Poppins” and the Beatles’ “Michelle” are two of the more popular examples.
Michael Skidmore, with the help of University of Vermont music Professor Alexander Stewart, uses the style of both of the songs to support the claim of copyright infringement. Stewart stated that both songs have a “classical style” and a “Renaissance atmosphere.”
Yet, the argument is based on the use of instruments like acoustic guitar, flute sounds and harpsichord in these songs. Without even considering the fact that “Stairway to Heaven” does not use a harpsichord, it is invalid to argue about the feeling a song exudes and the musical instruments utilized throughout the song when both were central aspects of the psychedelic era.
Making the claim that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were infringing on Spirit’s copyright when composing the piece would be detrimental to the creative process. The use of recycling stories and motifs has been a central part of creation since the ancient world.
Shakespeare often used ancient stories in his plays. He does not attempt to hide the similarity between Romeo and Juliet and Pyramus and Thisbe. Classical music also often built off of previous works and the compositions of contemporaries. The works of Shakespeare and Bach are no less accredited due to this practice, and they are still considered masters in their fields.
Intellectual property rights have changed a lot since the times of classical music and Shakespearean plays. Artists were freer with their creations. They were more flexible to use other’s works as inspiration without the troubles and defamation of being sued.
Blatant plagiarism is obviously inexcusable, yet the use of similar motifs and styles cannot be faulted. If Led Zeppelin loses this case, a precedent will be created for art that stunts creative growth due to fear of the law.
Alyssa Luis is a staff columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.