Does Led Zeppelin owe Spirit a songwriting credit for ‘Stairway to Heaven’?


John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. (Courtesy Atlantic Records)

A recent Supreme Court ruling may have something to do with the reason why the estate of Randy California, the guitarist for the band Spirit, is planning to sue Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over the classic “Stairway to Heaven.”

California’s estate is alleging that the introduction to “Stairway to Heaven,” which has netted the band at least $562 million according to Bloomberg Businessweek, was ripped from the Spirit song “Taurus.” It is seeking a songwriting credit.

The announcement comes just as the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a case regarding the movie “Raging Bull” that screenwriter Frank Petrella’s daughter had the right to sue for copyright infringement after two lower courts threw out the suit, saying that Petrella waited too long to file. The high court ruled Petrella’s daughter did have the right to sue because MGM, the studio that made the movie, has been marketing it continuously since its 1980 release.

It seems intellectual property lawyer Brad Newburg’s prediction may be coming to fruition. The recent ruling could be why the California band decided to sue Led Zeppelin after waiting for so many years.

“I think the floodgates are open now,” Newberg told NPR’s Nina Totenberg. “You are going to see an explosion of people coming forward from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, coming out of the woodwork to say that hit songs, movies, TV shows, works like that, that are still in the marketplace, belong to them, and they want a share of the profits.”

Members of Led Zeppelin certainly aren’t strangers to charges of stealing the work of other artists, namely blues musicians, and passing it off as their own. In fact, there are multiple YouTube videos aimed at busting myths about the origins of Zeppelin songs such as “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “Bring It on Home,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Custard Pie.”

Wrote Vernon Silver in Businessweek:

California doesn’t seem to have griped about Stairway’s genesis, at least publicly, for decades. Finally, citing the gigs they played together, California told journalist Jeff McLaughlin in the winter 1997 issue of Listener magazine that Led Zeppelin had filched his song. “I’d say it was a ripoff,” California said. “And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it.” On Jan. 2, 1997, California drowned while rescuing his 12-year-old son from a rip current in Hawaii.

Compare for yourself. Here’s “Stairway to Heaven:”

And here’s “Taurus:”

When it comes to music, what’s acceptable to borrow, how much and from whom gets complicated quickly. Case in point:

No one really had much to say about Robin Thicke sampling the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5:

But a bunch of people, including Marvin Gaye’s family, were really upset that “Blurred Lines” sounded a whole lot like Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.” In fact, it sounded so much like the Gaye classic that Thicke and producer Pharrell Williams preemptively sued Marvin Gaye’s family, seeking to have a federal judge rule that they didn’t steal from “Got To Give It Up.” The Gayes eventually settled a suit with Sony where they accused the company of not protecting Gaye’s songs.

In the case of “Got to Give it Up,” there was an additional layer of questions about cultural appropriation and Thicke’s particular brand of “Blue-Eyed Soul.”

Is acceptable for Thicke, who is white, to have a massive hit that, at the very least, was inspired by Gaye’s work given the long history of white artists profiting from and mainstreaming songs that were originally played on black-owned radio stations back when even the airwaves were segregated? Does it matter that Pharrell, the producer of “Blurred Lines,” is black, or that the collaboration led to a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance? Does it matter that Led Zeppelin was a British band an ocean removed from the vagaries of American segregation? Plenty of modern British artists co-opt and inhabit soul music — think Joss Stone, Adele or the late Amy Winehouse — without charges of cultural appropriation. Adele is about as close to universally loved as it gets for a modern-day artist. Her 2011 album “21″ spent 118 weeks in the Billboard Top 40.

And what if it’s the other way around? The Awl has a pretty nifty compilation worth checking out: “The Definitive List Of White Music Stolen By Black People.”

Should we just throw up our hands and acknowledge that, in music: 1) everyone steals from everyone; 2) there’s nothing new under the sun; and 3) that maybe the decent, polite thing for alleged copyright infringers to do would be to say, “Hey, I really like this thing you created. I’m going to borrow from it, tweak it, and make it my own, but I will happily give you credit and, when appropriate, toss you some well-deserved coin instead of hogging the title of Genius and the resulting profits for myself.”

Heh. That’ll be the day.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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