Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before
Led Zeppelin face a lawsuit over claims that parts of 'Stairway to Heaven' may have been stolen. Ed Power charts the history of musical copy-cat rows
Rock icons Led Zeppelin found themselves climbing a stairway to litigation this week as a judge ruled parts of their most enduring hit may have been stolen. In what could prove one of the highest profile plagiarism lawsuits in popular music, a Los Angeles district court justice declared that elements of Stairway To Heaven and a 1967 instrumental by the group Spirit were sufficiently similar to merit a full jury trial.
If Led Zeppelin are found to have borrowed illicitly from Spirit, the implications could be profound. What other sonic sacred cows might fall under scrutiny?
The particulars of the case are fascinating, leaving aside the legal intricacies. The suit was brought on behalf of Spirit's late guitarist Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California. Spirit and Led Zeppelin toured together in the late 60s and Wolfe's estate assert that Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page may have been inspired by hearing Spirit perform the track Taurus.
The extraordinary defence offered by Led Zeppelin's lawyers is that the "descending" chord progressions at the centre of the dispute were too "cliched" to merit copyright protection. In other words, they are suggesting the sequence of notes Zeppelin are accused of lifting are too hackneyed to merit legal protection.
"While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure," wrote the judge in his potentially seismic opinion. "What remains is a subjective assessment of the 'concept and feel' of two works... a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury."
As rock and roll has aged out of youthful vibrancy and come to be regarded as a "legacy" art, plagiarism lawsuits have become commonplace. Most rock fans of a certain vintage will recall the cautionary tale of former Beatle George Harrison and his 1970 number one My Sweet Lord, which a judge decreed Harrison had "unconsciously plagiarised" from He's So Fine by The Chiffons.
But the significance of that lawsuit is eclipsed by the March 2015 verdict of an LA jury that the Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' hit Blurred Lines had infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up, with damages of $7.4 million awarded (the defendants are appealing).
The Blurred Lines ruling has prompted a great deal of soul searching in the industry. One problem is that musicians are influenced by one another all of the time.
Without The Kinks there would never have been a Blur, without Talking Heads and Bowie, LCD Soundsystem would not exist. When Joy Division's Ian Curtis committed suicide, Bono told their record label boss that U2 could carry on where they had left off.
U2 and Joy Division shared the same post-punk DNA though U2 took the formula in the a different direction - much as Coldplay's sweeping guitar vistas drew on U2's patented bombast.
These musicians were all in dialogue with one another, building on each other's innovations. That's how music works - ideas spread through the ether and everyone helps themselves.
"Plagiarism is endemic to music: classical composers quote one another, or simply lift melodies for re-use," Damon Krukowski of cult independent groups Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi wrote in Pitchfork.com following the Blurred Lines ruling.
"Over the years, I've written things that reminded me of songs I grew up with, and now that's going to be a red flag. Even right now, I'm afraid to mention that," Bonnie McKee, composer of Katie Perry's Teenage Dream told the Los Angeles Times.
"I've heard lots of [songs] where I'm, like, 'Oh, this sounds like Teenage Dream. But I'm not going to sue someone for being influenced by that song. Today, older artists see [doing] that as a goldmine. It strikes fear into the hearts of songwriters."
Even in a post-Blurred Lines era there are, of course, more straightforward cases. Sam Smith reached a settlement with Tom Petty over similarities between his chart-topper Stay With Me and Petty's Don't Back Down. In the aftermath Petty was conciliatory, pointing out musicians unconsciously regurgitate other artists's work constantly.
"Let me say I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam. All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by," Petty said in a statement.
"I just took Sweet Little 16 and rewrote it into something of our own," was how Beach Boy Brian Wilson described the genesis of Surfin' USA. Chuck Berry, composer of Sweet Little 16, was less relaxed about it and eventually secured crediting and publishing royalties.
When I spoke to Wilson several years ago, he seemed nostalgic for the days when musicians operated in a world without limits. "I've said it before… writing songs is a lot more difficult than it used to be," he told me. "Let's face it - all the good ones have already been written."
Tunes that were too close for comfort
George Harrison, My Sweet Lord
The zen Beatle was successfully sued by the publishers of He's So Fine, who claimed My Sweet Lord was a copy of the earlier hit. "The two songs are virtually identical," ruled the judge, not leaving Harrison much wiggle room.
The early lad-rock smash lifted elements of I'd Like To Teach the World to Sing by The New Seekers (aka the music from the early 70s Coke ad). Oasis were sued for unlicensed use and paid out $500,000. "We drink Pepsi now," Noel would late quip.
Ray Parker Jr, Ghostbusters theme
Who you gonna call? Your lawyers, if you are Huey Lewis. The band leader noticed a similarity between his I Want A New Drug and Ray Parker Jr's 1984 Ghostbusters jingle, with the latter settling out of court.
Coldplay, Viva La Vida
Rock noodler Joe Satriani took a case against Chris Martin and chums, alleging similarities between the Grammy-winning title track of their 2008 album and his instrumental If I Could Fly. The parties reached an out-of-court agreement.