Stairway to Litigation
Arguably the most influential rock song of all time, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven“ remains heavy in the mainstream consciousness more than 44 years after its 1971 release. Radio won’t let us forget it.
It’s drawn numerous covers and parodies - think “Wayne’s World” and that seminal ‘90s track “Hairway to Steven”, courtesy of the Butthole Surfers. But most recently, it’s drawn the ire of U.S District Judge Gary Klausner.
Recently, he gave the greenlight for Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to face a copyright trial, brought about by bass player Mark Andes of little known 1960s American group Spirit.
It’s not the song but the opening guitar riff that’s in question, the descending chord progression determined to be eerily similar to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental release “Taurus.” Making the waters even murkier? The fact Zeppelin opened for Spirit in their debut U.S. tour of ‘68/’69.
The lawsuit filed by Andes and a trustee of the late “Taurus” composer Randy Wolfe apparently seeks little of the $550 million in previous earnings - but a posthumous songwriting credit for Wolfe (who died in 1997) and a share of future profits. Apparently. But this is just the latest in a string of copyright infringements to make the news.
The Verve vs. The Rolling Stones
“Bittersweet Symphony.” It’s a song that defines the 1990s and its seminal composition has earned millions courtesy of advertising licensing and venue play. But The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft has seen only $1,000 of the fortune. Why? Because the repetitive orchestral loop is a sample of an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones hit ”The Last Time.” The Verve’s management cleared the rights from the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, but failed to purchase the underlying rights of the original composition from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ publisher ABKCO. As such, not only did ABCKO negotiate full publishing rights to the song, but for it to be released at all, Richards and Jagger were credited as co-writers. They received millions of dollars in royalties as a result and a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year to boot.
Sam Smith vs. Tom Petty
This one ended up a little better for Sam Smith, whose 2015 hit ”Stay With Me” was immediately pegged for sounding identical to the Tom Petty classic “Won’t Back Down.” Ok, identical is a stretch. It’s way slower and hard to pick at first, but listen closely and the tune and melody of the chorus are spot on Petty - just not as nasal. Again, it wasn’t the artist but Petty’s publisher who instigated the lawsuit. But courtesy of Petty’s chilled SoCal nature, the matter was settled out of court and Petty scored a sneaky “co-written by” credit.
Robin Thicke vs. Marvin Gaye
Of every song here, “Blurred Lines” is the most blatant rip-off. Making matters worse, the fact Thicke and, to a lesser extent, Pharrell Williams refused to acknowledge as much. So a U.S court did it for them, ruling it a massive infringement against Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up and ordering them to pay his estate more than $7 million dollars for copyright damage and infringement. In the words of Forrest Gump: thick is as Thicke does. Or something to that effect.
Mark Ronson vs. The Gap Band
A long-time UK celebrity, DJ and producer Mark Ronson finally cracked the international market with the 2014 hit “Uptown Funk” featuring Bruno Mars. However, the notoriety didn’t come without its problems, the record label for 1970s group The Gap Band filing a suit and claiming the song’s chorus was identical to 1979 “Oops Upside Your Head.” And they were right: a court gave the band “co-written by” status and 17.5 percent share of all earnings. That’s a total of 11 credited songwriters to write one hit in 2014. Maybe it has all been done before.
Coldplay vs. Joe Satriani
Another UK outfit, another infringement case against an American band. There seems to be a pattern here. And Coldplay’s 2008 No.1 hit “Viva la Vida” is the perpetrator at hand, settling out of of court with guitar teacher to the stars Satriani for the similarities to his 2004 instrumental “If I Could Fly.” He might not have been a household name, but Satriani is responsible for talents such as Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and Steve Vai.