February 1, 2021 Amy Scott

Ooh…It Makes Me Wonder…How Safe is Making Music?

Led Zeppelin recently won a lawsuit that we all thought would change the future of the music business, by at least making many songwriters think twice before attempting to sue for theft of material.  But this legal win may not be over… it may now go all the way to the Supreme Court.

This legal action began in back in 2014, when a band named Spirit (one minor hit “I Got a Line on You” #26 1968) claimed that the opening riffs of “Stairway to Heaven” were stolen from their very forgettable tune “Taurus”. A copyright infringement suit was filed against Robert Plant and Jimmy Page on behalf of the estate of Randy Wolfe, the frontman of Spirit who wrote “Taurus” and died in 1997. They lost the case in 2016, but appealed in 2018.  That case just settled in favor of Led Zeppelin on March 9th. But now the plaintiff says the fight is not over.

Now let’s just think this over. The iconic song “Stairway to Heaven” came out in 1971. Forty-three years later, these guys from Spirit are like “waaait a minute… that sounds familiar!” Come on… what took them so long? Remember, the guy who they claim wrote this has been dead for 23 years. The suit has been filed by a journalist named Michale Skidmore who is an heir to the estate.

I’ve interviewed singers and songwriters for over 30 years now…  and I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve asked the question “Who are your influences?” Lately for many artists, that’s a dangerous question to answer.  Recording artists and songwriters are on high alert over the chance that they could be sued by anyone, from anywhere, who once released a song that even held the slightest hint of a hook, refrain, or even, honestly a similar “vibe” to their own.

It makes me wonder…since streaming music has hurt record sales, are artists considering lawsuits against each other a way to survive?

You may remember, back in 2018, Robin Thick and Pharrell were sued, and found guilty of stealing the “vibe” of Marvin Gaye for their song “Blurred Lines”. The VIBE. I always thought that giving off the same vibe may put you in a genre… but obviously a few synthesized beats that sound the same were worth $5.3 million dollars and half of all future royalties to the Gaye family.

There are artists who have definitely abused the “influence” defense … take Madonna for example.

Madonna, who claims to write her songs, has crossed the line of influence more than a few times.  (“Like a Prayer”: think Staple Singers “I’ll Take You There”… “Lucky Star” – Hello Earth Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star”? I could go on…) Clearly she’s sold enough records to bear the brunt of a few lawsuits. She usually wins, but it’s a common opinion that she’s an infamous pilferer.  And she’s stolen video themes from movies (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and images of icons… Garbo, Marilyn, Dietrich, Bardot… even Cyndi Lauper, who she pinched off of for her first look.  And then she accused Lady Gaga of stealing “Express Yourself” and turning it into “Born This Way”. It was only a well-publicized feud… she knew better than to sue.

Lately, it seems that everyone is being sued… Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Shakira, John Legend, Bruno Mars… Do you think Sam Smith really stole “Stay with Me” from Tom Petty’s “Can’t Back Down”? Even Peppa Pig (yes, from the cartoon) is being sued by a young R & B artist who claims “Peppa’s Party Time” was lifted from her 1996 release “Naked”.

This may sound odd, but I remember thinking about this very thing as a kid, asking adults “How many different songs could possibly be made in the world before they repeat?” I mean there are only so many notes on the scale, and though it’s I’m sure a very large one, only a limited number of ways to put those notes together, right? I mean it’s basic math. Well maybe not basic, but you get my drift.

People write songs about the same things, too. Love, Hate, Love then hate, Sex, Sorrow, Regret, Drinking, Drugs, and their love of California and New York.  How many ways can you express desire? There’s gotta be a bit of overlap here.

And how many musical styles are there? Rock, Pop, Hip Hop, Rap, Reggae, Country, Jazz, Blues, and the subcategories… Alt-rock, Pop rock, Grunge Rock, Modern Rock, but I mean the beats can only be thrown down in so many patterns…right?

Now sampling – that’s a different story. Clearly, if you’re going to lift from a recording, everyone knows, you pay for it.  But my point, if it’s not painfully obvious by now, is that how can anyone own a frigging vibe? Or a chord progression reminiscent of a song from 40 years ago that is nowhere near the chart success as it is in a new version?

This logic could easily be debated in other forms of art as well.  Writers suing each other for stealing the idea of a murder on a train, or a story of African American soldiers.  Maybe a string of events in a story, or even a string of great adjectives?  Hell, I’ll bet a few people have written articles about this subject before.  Should I get a lawyer?  I did research on this topic … is that theft?

What about the artist Shepard Fairey, who did the iconic Barack Obama Poster… taken from a photo, which was taken by Associated Press freelance photographer Mannie Garcia. They settled out of court.  Yet no one sued Jim Fitzpatrick for doing essentially the same thing with his iconic image of Che Guevera. Interesting fact, Madonna was also “influenced” by that image for the cover of “American Life.”  Hmmmm…

So back to the music…

Recording artists now can buy Professional Liability Insurance to protect their work as intellectual property. Many others are hiring scholarly music experts to listen for unconscious theft in their songs.  How is a young struggling musician supposed to protect themselves when they haven’t got the money to buy insurance or hire a musicologist?

In what may be good news… The court just overturned the “Inverse Ratio Rule” which basically states that the more access an artist has to hear the original, the more likely it proves a rip-off. (I.e. Since Zeppelin and Spirit toured together briefly back in ‘68, Spirit claimed they privately played Taurus for Page and Plant while on the road, and they, in turn, stole parts of it for “Stairway to Heaven”- they had direct access to it.)  The logic behind the courts overturning the rule sites the influence of the many digital outlets today, like Itunes, Spotify, YouTube … it all makes it harder to prove where  “influence” comes from.  Make sense?  This could put many new artists who are paranoid at ease.

If influences are considered theft, what have we become? Music is made to be shared. What artist doesn’t feel grateful to know that they have influenced others who’ve come later? Why is everyone money-grubbing? I could see it if an artist went to a record company with a song, was turned down… and then that record company took that song to another artist and said: “Rip this off a bit”. That’s not fair… but a reggae artist sued Miley Cyrus for stealing a riff! How do you connect those dots? She settled with him out of court because it wasn’t worth the trouble.

Sure, artists make the money, but the essence of music belongs to the listener. There aren’t anywhere near enough combinations of what music is made of for anyone to claim entire ownership.

SO Spirit, if you’re out there… I’ve heard your song… there is a similar chord progression.  And I’ll bet you those 4 chords have been put together by a few others through the years as well. Don’t you think the Supreme Court has enough on their plate? Think of the fact that now, more people know your song “Taurus” than ever before.  A great song is magical.  It takes more than written music to make a song into magic. It also takes the artists who deliver it as well.