Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Stairway to Taurus - Plagiarism?

Interesting story in the music world - there's been a fair bit of discussion about possible allegations of plagiarism against Led Zeppelin, that its iconic 1971 Stairway to Heaven ripped off a 1968 piece by Spirit, called "Taurus".

Listen to them both, and judge for yourself.

They do sound very similar.  Similar cadence, similar progressions, similar themes.  It's very clear that Spirit 'influenced' Led Zeppelin.  But that's not the same as saying that Led Zeppelin ripped them off.

You see, every musician is influenced by other groups.  That's a big part of what art is all about - about developing new genres and sounds by building on what's already out there.  And when you're talking about contemporary bands playing to similar audiences (in fact, they occasionally played together), it's not at all surprising that you'd see a number of common elements between them.

There are only so many chord progressions.  For some insight into this phenomenon, watch Rob Paravonian's rant on Pachelbel's Canon in D.  (It's worth watching, both for the humour and the education value.  I'd discovered the phenomenon when I learned to play guitar in my teenage years, and discovered that U2's With Or Without You and Bush's Glycerine are really just the same song in different keys.)

Particularly within the same genre, at a given point in time, you really expect a lot of similarities between pieces.

Spirit's bassist, Mark Andes, admitted that he hadn't seen the similarity until relatively recently.  "The clarity seems to be a present-day clarity, not at the time of infringement.  I can't explain it."  I think I can:  In the early 70s, a lot of rock had similar elements.  If you put Led Zeppelin and Spirit beside, say, the Doors and the Stones (at least, the work they were doing at the time), it's clear that they all belong in the same group, and the relative similarities between two songs won't stand out as much.  On the other hand, if you put Stairway and Taurus together with modern-day rock songs, they look pretty much identical against the stark contrast.

I've heard other songs with more similar elements.  It happens, and it's often coincidence, or at least inadvertent, and in this case, I think if anything's being copied, it's the style, not the song itself.  This certainly isn't a "Sweet Little Sixteen"/"Surfin' USA" kind of copying.


This blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

The author is a lawyer practicing in Newmarket, primarily in the areas of labour and employment law and civil litigation. If you need legal assistance, please contact him for information on available services and billing.

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