Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have been in court in LA this week, defending themselves against a claim that their classic hit 'Stairway to Heaven' copied a section from an earlier song called 'Taurus', written by Spirit guitarist Randy California.
This is the latest in a rapidly increasing list of recent US copyright infringement claims in the music industry. In 2015 Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay $7.2m to Marvin Gaye's estate when their hit 'Blurred Lines' was held to have copied Gay's song 'Got to Give it Up'. While Williams admitted being influenced by Gay's 1977 hit, the pair denied copying - and the key similarities between the two songs were essentially the 'feel' and the 'groove' and elements of the song's structure (rather than any particular section or phrase being directly lifted from the original).
Although Thicke and Williams have appealed, the 'Blurred Lines' decision has certainly caused some ripples in the music industry pond – Thicke and Williams' lawyer Howard King was quoted as saying that the decision effectively allowed Marvin Gaye's estate to "claim ownership of an entire genre", and it triggered something of an outcry among many artists and commentators, who argue that the decision has blurred the line (sorry, I just couldn't resist…) over the extent of protection conferred by the copyright in a song. Since then, infringement claims have been brought against Sam Smith (although this claim was settled before it reached court), Ed Sheeran and now Led Zeppelin.
Claims do seem to be increasingly straying into the realms of a new hit having "taken inspiration from" (rather than necessarily having "taken bits of") the existing work, and to me this is a rather worrying trend.
The purpose of copyright is to protect the expression of an idea, not grant a monopoly over the idea itself. With this in mind (and given that most musical combinations have probably been done before, in some form, somewhere, by someone), isn't it a bit harsh to punish someone for being influenced - consciously or unconsciously - by someone else's work, or for re-using something as universal as a chord sequence or rhythmic structure, if this falls short of directly ripping off the original?
Not only could this have a chilling effect on creativity within the music industry, but the easier it is to found a claim for copyright infringement, the more likely it is that people will try their luck with a spurious claim. What do you think – are we in danger of musical copyright claims becoming the next hunting ground for trolls?
Particularly in the case of 'Stairway to Heaven', I would have expected Randy California to have had a moan about it at the time if he really thought he was being ripped off. In my eyes, this particular claim reeks of opportunism in the wake of the Blurred Lines decision – and I hope that it is smacked down like a Led Zeppelin.
A key chapter of music history could be rewritten by a jury that began deliberating Wednesday over whether Led Zeppelin ripped off a riff for its epic Stairway to Heaven.