Stairway to Litigation

As of last week, Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page (or ought that be Jimmy Page's Led Zeppelin?) was in the dock to give testimony on copyright infringement on the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven.

Well, as we say in the biz, "Where there's a hit there's a writ". Even if said writ is a bit late in the writting.

Now, the only time the legal profession makes music more interesting is when it's Breaking the Law, or I Fought the Law & the Law Won.* But this case has a few intellectual nibbles related to the big issue (for musicians anyway) of copyright infringement. What it is, and how much to get a kickback for it.

Here's Stairway (from the copyright infringement happy YouTube^, but that's a different tale most people don't want to hear). Innerestingly, the opening bit (the bit relevant here) isn't on the official channel. Anyway, you ought to know it by now, seeing as you're here with the Roque.

And here's the Taurus song by Spirit (1969). The chord progression begins at 0:44.

While the court case (which is also a jury case in the USA, so anything goes, especially if John Cusak's involved) centres on whether Pagey and 'Percy' Plant had heard the Spirit song prior to writing Stairway (which, in reality is entirely probable – see here), the facts remain, down by law §:

Chord progressions are not copyrightable. Only melodies and lyrics.

Why? You might ask. Well, as manman manmany mannny many MANY songs have the same chords, thanks to our natural propensity for certain harmonic movement, to copyright Cmaj  /   Gmaj    /   Fmaj   ,for example, would kill any chance of writing a song. Like, everything would either sound crazy different (innovation is the mother of necessity), or be too expensive to licence (the C-G-F guy or gal would be getting a cut of every performance and recording of said chords).

So Plant & Page wrote a great melody over these chords (yeah, with sus Zep lyrics, but if there was no cheese, there'd be no cheeseburger+), and then took it to another plane – which, let's face it, is the real reason it's a hit. It's got an elevating, optimistic arrangement, kick ass guitar solo (the first Trey ever learnt, FWIW), and fabulicious production.

Plus (or, as the French say, plus!), that descending bass thing was splattered everywhere throughout the 60s-early-70s. Much like autotune and hella reverb is on every song today. And, as one person commented, the Spirit song sounds like someone playing a bad version of Stairway....

And the lawyer for the plaintiff has a name almost the same as Malfoy – so that's not a good thing, is it?

So there!

Last note – this case IS NOTHING LIKE the Robin Thicke case of last year, which lifted samples from Marvin Gaye. Sampling is general evil, and those who do it suck. (Maybe this is due a rant on a different blog? – Ed.).

UPDATE 23 June 2016: Zep were cleared of plagiarism.
* Or two of Trey's early cuts – Lure of the Law, and Barrister From Hell (I Do Very Well).

^ We try to source official channels for vid when we can. Or cuts from the artist website itself. Oddly, not always possible.

§ In the spirit of the law, many sentences in this post are as circuitous as any legal treatise. Meta, or what!

+ Anyway, Percy get to say arsehole on world-famous rock song **

** Yes, some of us still giggle at that bit. What's being a grown-up got to do with it?


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