“My hand was writing out the words:
There’s a lady who’s sure,
all that glitters is gold,
and she’s buying a stairway to heaven…
“I just sat there and looked at them and almost leapt out of my seat.
“Plant’s own explanation of the lyrics was that it ‘was some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration.’ ” – 1998 interview of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant by Sian Llewellyn, from Total Guitar
Last week a federal jury ruled that rock band Led Zeppelin’s 1971 Stairway to Heaven is not only a classic but original.
The New York Times reports (June 24), that “The suit was filed two years ago by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the songs of Randy Wolfe, a member of the band Spirit. It contends that the Led Zeppelin members Page and Plant had lifted substantial portions of the Spirit song Taurus, from 1968, for the beginning of Stairway to Heaven, which was released in 1971 and, by some estimates, has earned more than $500 million. …
“Lawyers for Mr. Skidmore presented evidence showing that the bands crossed paths while touring early in their careers, as well as testimony from music experts saying that both songs shared a similar chord progression and, most distinctively, a descending bass line in a chromatic scale.”
“In its verdict,” writes Guitar magazine (June 23), “the jury of eight said that Led Zeppelin members indeed heard Taurus, but that there was no substantial similarity in the extrinsic elements of the song and Stairway to Heaven. The decision was reached within half an hour of the jury listening to both songs one final time. …
“[Zeppelin’s] defense relied largely on the fact that the descending musical figure central to the case has been used countless times in musical compositions over the past 300 years. The defense presented an extensive list of songs that use the passage or one similar to it, including My Funny Valentine and the opening to the Beatles’ 1965 song Michelle. ”
Page and Plant issued a joint statement, Time magazine reports (June 23), saying, “We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of Stairway to Heaven and confirming what we have known for 45 years.”
While the Stairway plagiarism suit may only rate 10 or 20 out of possible 100 (Countrywide Mortgage easily hits that mark), it does have some relevance to this ethics specialist’s early roots. Sitting back with my buddy Steve (not that Steve), in a smoke-filled room, we listened to songs from Zeppelin as well as the Moody Blues while contemplating the meaning of life.
However, after 45 years, what would motivate Skidmore to bring his suit?
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder…
“The trial was the second major case in a year,” The Times points out, “to involve copyright issues and the music industry, after Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay $5.3 million to the family of Marvin Gaye over their 2013 hit Blurred Lines. That case, which has been appealed, has led to a wide debate in the music world over the limits of copyright protection, and whether the musical elements of homage — a song’s atmospherics, rhythms and overall ‘feel’ — can cross the line into infringement.”
However, the cynical part of me believes the answer may be simpler, found in the last of the song’s lyrics:
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold …