Love those rock & roll lawsuits! Here's a fun one: Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are being sued for copyright infringement for the opening guitar line on their overwrought classic, "Stairway to Heaven."
The plaintiff is the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California) of the band Spirit. The estate alleges that Page and Plant—as composers of the song—stole the guitar intro from a Spirit song, "Taurus," that California wrote.
Zeppelin as a band has reportedly made over a half billion dollars on "Stairway to Heaven" and Page and Plant have probably made even more from songwriter royalties, so what's at stake here isn't chump change.
Listening to the opening of the two songs back to back, I think Page's guitar intro may qualify as a lift. [The video I linked to is no longer available.] Page even plays it in the same key (A minor) that Spirit used. Zeppelin was likely exposed to the song when the band opened for Spirit in the late 60s. And the fact that Zeppelin has a history of losing plagiarism lawsuits won't help the case—assuming it makes it to trial without a settlement.
But wait! Hold the presses! There may be an earlier claim on the guitar line. Davey Graham, a Brit folk guitarist, had a similar sounding part on his 1959 song, "Cry Me a River." (Check it out here.) The music has a shuffle feel (which is unlike either "Taurus" or "Stairway") but the guitar line bears similarity to "Stairway." And because Page was a Davey Graham fan in Britain in the 60s, it's likely he was exposed to this song as well.
How this will affect the current lawsuit is anybody's guess. But, in an ironic twist, it's possible Graham's estate could sue both other parties.
1. Rock IS a business—and a legitimate one to pursue. It's not like the old days when parents would tell their kids, "We support you in doing ANYTHING you want—well, as long as you don't try to make a living playing music and wind up in the gutter." (My folks told me this, almost word for word.) Some parents now actively encourage their kids to become musicians. Or music business attorneys.
2. Respect intellectual property. Don't rip people off, especially your colleagues. Despite what you read these days, IP matters.
Ok, you say, maybe it was a subliminal act on Page's part. Maybe that chord sequence was rattling around in his auditory cortex from hearing Davey Graham and/or Randy California, and he didn't realize where it came from. Happens all the time. And Page comes across as an honorable dude. But once the similarities are discovered, the right thing to do (in my mind) is to not contest the suit. Admit that the guitar line could have been borrowed unintentionally from either or both sources. All parties could be accommodated in a negotiated settlement for future royalties.
My (unsolicited) advice: take the high road. You know, the stairway to heaven.