Led Zeppelin’s plagiarism lawsuit: a sign of the times in the music industry

In an age of declining revenue, suing over chord progressions and samples opens a new revenue stream for disgruntled artists – but such action is nothing new

Led Zeppelin is only the latest to face off against a musician who feel that a big song has copied their riff. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

It’s hard for musicians to make money these days, given the drain of file-sharing and the lousy wages of streaming. But an increasing number of artists have found another way to generate funds: lawsuits against each other.

In the past few years, a rash of high-profile legal actions have been launched by stars, or their estates, over copyright infringement. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Sam Smith and Robin Thicke have each stood accused of stealing sounds from other musicians in their songs, forcing them either to wage costly court battles or to settle the suits privately for undisclosed sums.

The latest and mostly hotly anticipated case starts next month. It will pit the estate of one member of the 60s psychedelic rock band Spirit against the lead writers of Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. The suit contends that theBrit-rockers lifted a portion of a 1968 instrumental by Spirit, called Taurus, for the opening chords of their 1971 FM radio classic Stairway To Heaven.

The family of Randy Craig Wolfe, deceased author of Taurus, first made these allegations several years ago, but it’s only coming to trial now. Zeppelin’s decision not to settle carries significant risk. Last year, Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay a record-setting $7.2m to the estate of Marvin Gaye, after a court ruled that they pilfered parts of the soul icon’s 1977 song Got to Give It Up for their smash Blurred Lines. That ruling is currently being appealed.

To avoid judgments so consequential, other stars have made undisclosed payoffs to the aggrieved. Yet even when artists avoid the garishness, and whims, of a jury trial, the attendant publicity puts the accused in a shady light. Worse, the recent escalation in plagiarism cases sets a precedent so onerous it could make many musicians spend more time in court than on the road. In fact, most such cases ignore the wide range of sounds and performance styles that fans hear, and respond to, when listening to a record. A broad array of elements draws us to a song, and ultimately those elements define the piece to a far finer degree than the isolated, often lesser, sections which set these cases in motion.

In Led Zeppelin’s case, both the Page and Wolfe songs spin on an A minor arpeggio. That’s a progression that, as even the judge on the case has acknowledged, has been employed by many songwriters. While the early notes in each piece sound similar, there are key variations. Most crucially, the arpeggio in Taurus does not resolve; the one in Stairway does, changing the whole flavor of this section of the song and creating its own melodic hook. Without that final rounding of the notes as created by Page, the opening of Stairway wouldn’t have had nearly the same resonance it has had.

Another complaint, by Tom Petty against Sam Smith, was settled quickly and stealthily out of court last year. It seems even further off the mark. True, each of the song’s choruses employs descending chords which sound similar. But they’re actually different chords. Won’t Back Down moves from E minor to D to G; Stay With Me progresses from A minor to F to C. Moreover, the similarity in sound has more to do with the rudimentary nature of the songs’ compositions than with any striking originality on Petty’s part. In fact, the overlapping sections of the songs are so simplistic as to nearly erase themselves from memory.

The two hits find far greater definition through some significant distinctions in their melodies, as well as in their respective performances. Petty sings in a straightforward way; Smith flutters grandly. Where Petty is emphatic, Smith is effusive. The thrust, and appeal, of the songs has far more to do with the way the stars color and deliver the tunes than with the bare, undifferentiated chords lolling through the chorus.

Read more at the Guardian

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