by Steve Buschbacher
On June 23, 2016, A federal jury decided that Led Zeppelin, specifically Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, did not steal a riff for their iconic tune, “Stairway To Heaven”. They had been sued for copyright infringement by a trustee for the estate of the late Randy Wolfe (Randy California) claiming that the opening riff to the Led Zeppelin song was the same as the opening riff to the Spirit song, “Taurus”.
Admittedly, the jury had it tough since they were not allowed to hear the actual recordings but only presented with sheet music and renditions of each song played by a musician hired by each side of the lawsuit. The plaintiff had their version played on guitar and the defendant had their version played on piano. (I’ll just leave that right there.)
I guess it was time for Zep to win one since they had been shown to have “borrowed” liberally from other songwriters in the past. Specifically “Dazed And Confused” (Jake Holmes with whom Page had toured earlier), “How Many More Times” (Chester Burnett a.k.a. Howlin’ Wolf), “Whole Lotta Love” (Willie Dixon), “The Lemon Song” (Chester Burnett again), “Bring It On Home” (Willie Dixon again), “In My Time Of Dying” (this was a well known traditional gospel song but Page and Plant affixed every band member’s name to it as authors).
Why is this important? It’s all about the money. Royalties to the song writer of a popular tune can be substantial if it really takes off and is popular. And cheating people out of a share of the royalties is a long-standing tradition. The early blues artists were easy targets. Many songs weren’t copyrighted or, when they were, other names popped up as songwriters. Sometimes as the sole writer and other times as co-writer. I guess it depended on how “large” the music business executive felt that day. Carl Perkins said that he had written a song called “Matchbox” (recorded by the Beatles as well) but in reality, that song had been written in a slower version by Blind Lemon Jefferson in 1927. Jefferson died on the street in a snowstorm in Chicago. Would the royalties to a song recorded by the Beatles and by Carl Perkins have helped him? I think we know the answer to that one.
Speaking of the Beatles, there was the famous trial where George Harrison was sued for “My Sweet Lord” by the estate of Ronnie Mack, the writer of the Chiffons’ song “He’s So Fine”. Harrison lost the case. I remember reading that the Beatles were all huge fans of American R&B so I am confident that Harrison heard the Chiffon’s song many times. It may have been an unconscious act but it was still stolen.
The All American band, The Beach Boys, were proven to have stolen Chuck Berry’s song “Sweet Little Sixteen” for their hit “Surfin’ U.S.A.”. Guys, Chuck had enough troubles back in the day. Give him his due!
There are more contemporary examples as well. Listen to the opening riff for Green Day’s song ”Warning” and then listen to the Kink’s song “Picture Book”. Sound familiar? Next, listen to the opening of Nathanial Ratliff and the Nightsweats song “I Need Never Get Old” and then hear the opening to the Kink’s song “Victoria”. Similar? You bet they are. Radiohead put out a song called “Creep” that was proven in court to bear too close a similarity to The Hollies hit “The Air That I Breath”. The Strokes “Last Night” vs. Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ “American Girl”. We haven’t even touched on Sam Smith and Robin Thicke yet. However, in Mr. Smith’s defense, he owned up to it and made nice with Tom Petty. Robin Thick and Pharrel Williams had to be taken to court to satisfy the estate of Marvin Gaye.
Even the most revered John Williams may be guilty. Listen to the theme from Jaws and then listen to Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9. Dvorak can’t sue. He’s been dead for 112 years. John Williams won an Academy Award for “Best Original Score” for Jaws. Ironic, no?
Songwriting can be very hard. At least writing good songs can be hard. As hard as a songwriter may try, it is always possible that a song very familiar to the writer has had an influence on their creative process. It can be an honest mistake. When it happens, own up to it and share. It’s the right thing to do.