This week, Los Angeles will be witness to a guitar duel that could rock the foundations of the international music scene. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” will face off against Spirit’s “Taurus” not at the Hollywood Bowl, but in a nondescript federal courtroom. On June 14th, trial proceedings will commence with the objective of determining whether Led Zeppelin infringed Spirits’ copyright over the aforementioned tune. Specifically, a jury will be asked to determine whether the famous arpeggio featured at the beginning of the offending song is a copying of an excerpt from “Taurus”. Here’s what that excerpt sounds like (“Stairway to Heaven” needs no introduction):
Interestingly, the jury will not be afforded the opportunity to listen to the recording of “Taurus” above, but rather recordings transcribed from the sheet music itself (for a fuller explanation, check out the Hollywood Reporters’ story here). This isn’t the first time Led Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarism, and there’s always the potential for an out-of-court settlement. Nonetheless, the fact that they are proceeding to trial signals that this is a fight Led Zeppelin is willing to take on. And if they don’t like the outcome, the parties could always seek to appeal the decision.
As well as the potential commercial fallout (both for Led Zeppelin and the wider music industry), the upcoming case highlights a policy tension sitting at the heart of copyright: how can the law strike an appropriate balance between the right of one musician to enjoy the fruits of their labour, and the right of another to create new works? This tension may appear to resolve itself easily where there has been an outright, obvious copying of an entire work – an entire melody, rhythm, chord structure and so one.
But the tension becomes more distinct in cases such as these, where a small (in terms of length, anyway) portion of music is in question, and when one considers that the historical progression of music is ultimately founded upon the works of past pioneers. Artists constantly borrow and build on what has been done before them as they seek their own voice and their own form of expression. That being said, one must consider the opposite perspective: should it not be the case that the artist who toils to create something, be it only four bars long, can expect to be able to claim ownership over it and profit from their labour as they wish?
It’s this wider context that risks getting lost in individual cases such as this, where a jury’s focus is narrowed to an excerpt of a song – but is unlikely to be lost on the wide range of music industry and legal professionals who will be observing the case with interest and a likely sense of trepidation.