We reported recently how Led Zeppelin is being sued by the estate of guitarist Randy California, formerly of the band Spirit. The plaintiffs allege that Led Zeppelin appropriated pieces of Spirit’s song “Taurus” to use in the Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven”.
This is not the first time Led Zeppelin have been accused of ripping off other people’s music. Their “borrowing” usually is bits and pieces, or lyrics. Most of the time the songs are not recognizable as ripoffs until you examine them more closely.
Zeppelin settled out of court with bluesman Willie Dixon over their songs “Whole Lotta Love” and “Bring It On Home”. They also had to settle over “The Lemon Song”, which borrowed from Howlin’ Wolf’s song “The Killing Floor”. And they paid settlement to Ritchie Valens’ publisher over content in their song “Boogie With Stu”.
The common thread in all these suits and settlements has to do with musical phrases that many might consider timeless and ownerless. They may be phrases common in the parlance of musicians. For example, if Chuck Berry started suing everyone who ever used his “Johnny B. Goode” boogie riff, one fourth of rock and roll would be under subpoena.
It often seems that songwriters only go after those people who have made a lot of money with something that they hope they can convince a jury of untrained ears was stolen from them. The battle is costly, so many record companies, looking at the bottom line, encourage their artists to settle out of court and get on with making more money elsewhere.
Another famous plagiarism case, one that was went on for a while, was when George Harrison was accused of stealing the melody for his song “My Sweet Lord” from the girl-group The Chiffons’ song “He’s So Fine”. In the end, Harrison lost. That is what a jury of untrained ears, uneducated in music history will get you.
Rod Stewart was successfully sued by Brazilian songwriter Jorge Ben Jor, over “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Ben Jor said Stewart stole from his song “Taj Mahal”. While the whole song is certainly not similar, there are pieces of it that certainly sound quite alike.
One suit that ended up going nowhere was when the band Killing Joke sued Nirvana, saying the opening guitar riff to “Come As You Are” was lifted from their song “Eighties”. That Suit came to a grinding halt when Kurt Cobain killed himself.
Plagiarism is a tough charge to beat. Songs are copyrighted the moment they are recorded in any form, but it’s not like there are patent drawings to distinctly distinguish one from another. In today’s patent lawsuit crazy world, perhaps there is a parallel to be made.
Image via Wikimedia Commons