It Pays to Steal: Everything You Need to Know About Led Zeppelin's Plagiarism Trial

Plagiarism. If you're an inept, morally bereft individual, this is how you thrive in the world. If you're a successful creator to any degree, the threat or allegation of such is deeply unsettling. 

It's a word that should make us all at least a little bit squeamish as writers, students, artists, and creators. It can take many forms, some of which are minor or incidental, others of which are nefarious, vindictive, or Good-God-WTF-Were-You-Thinking stupid. 

But it happens. For those who simply can't even (see: "I have no original thought! Let me take yours!"), it happens on purpose. For 14-year-olds avoiding doing real research for their high school biology projects (sorry, Mom), it happens because they're dumb. 

From idiot freshmen to seemingly unimpeachable legends, plagiarism is, simply put, a big deal. 

Yesterday marked the first day in a long-awaited plagiarism trial between Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin on the grounds that they stole the opening chords for their 1971 hit "Stairway to Heaven" from Spirit's song, "Taurus."

Who the hell is Spirit? Spirit's a band from the 60s. That's pretty much it. They have a couple of memorable hits with "I Got a Line on You" and "1984," but other than that, they're simply the focus of yet another trial about plagiarism in music. 

Not only did they release "Taurus" long before Led Zeppelin ever ran with "Stairway to Heaven," the two bands actually toured together. 

But that's about the beginning and end of what I know about this trial or the band Spirit (other than the dopest name of the deceased frontman, Randy California - seriously! How do you get that kind of nickname?), so we're turning to an expert to give you both the big picture and the tiny details. 


We caught up with Tim English over email to give us the rundown on the trial and answer a few questions about what it all means. 

Tim English is a recognized authority on the topic of musical plagiarism in pop music. He has appeared on hundreds of radio programs in the U.S. U.K. and Canada, won Independent Publisher’s “Bronze Medal” for one of the best books of the year, Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Stolen Melodies, Ripped-off Riffs, and the Secret History of Rock and Roll.

He is also the author of Popology: The Music of the Era in the Lives of Four Icons of the 1960s which examines the role of music in the lives of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Thomas Merton. Here's what he had to say:

What's the latest in the Led Zeppelin lawsuit – how long it’s been brewing, the band’s record, next steps and more?

Tim: Led Zeppelin has a long history of failing to properly credit the sources of their songs. For instance, both "A Whole lot of Love" and "Dazed and Confused" are now credited to their proper co-authors Willie Dixon and Jake Holmes respectively. 

In both instances it was the result of legal action taken against Zeppelin. Zeppelin scored a significant pretrial victory when the judge ruled that the jury will not hear about these and other previous accusations of plagiarism against the band.

Is music plagiarism a newer phenomenon or has it been happening for a while?

Tim: Sounds Like Teen Spirit examines hundreds of pairings of songs that sound alike, most of which never saw legal action.

What are some other examples of beloved bands who have been accused of stealing melodies?

Tim: In 2014 Sam Smith reached an out-of-court settlement with Tom Petty because Smith's hit "Stay With Me" has the same melody as Petty's 1989 hit "I Won't Back Down." 

The authors of the Gap Band's 1979 hit "Oops Upside Your Head" are now credited on Bruno Mars/Ronson's "Uptown Funk." Coldplay settled out of court with guitarist Joe Satriani who claimed that "Vida La Vida" ripped off his 2004 song "If I Could Fly."

What can you tell me about some of the latest headlines of plagiarism, including the lawsuit against Ed Sheeran?


Tim: The plaintiffs have hired the lawyer that won the "Blurred Lines" case for the Gaye family. They appear to have a strong case as the songs sound quite similar.

Any hidden secrets of rock and roll we need to know about?


Tim: To put it simply, it pays to steal! Many artists achieved their first it by ripping off someone else's song.

What actually makes a successful, original pop song vs. what makes a successful pop star (kind of hitting at ghostwriters and such)?


Tim: Many of the hit songs of today are written by a small group of writers, Max Martin and Dr. Luke to name two. These writers provide popular performers with hook-laden, radio friendly songs. 

Often times, the "track" is put together by one group of writers while the melody line and lyric is added later by a different writer(s).

Are we getting closer to the seemingly ridiculous notion that there's "No such thing as an original song anymore?"

Tim: Let's say that it's probably true that since rock 'n' roll as a genre is now over 60 years old. It's harder to be original than it once was. Harder, but far from impossible.

What impact does plagiarism of this kind, particularly when it comes to the notoriety (associative or otherwise) of artists like Pharrell/Robin Thicke, Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, have on the music industry? Who's at fault? Would you assign blame to the performer, the writer, the label and the distribution of its music - who, if anyone?

Tim: The blame ultimately lies with the person claiming to have composed the new song that has in fact infringed the copyright of an earlier song. That would include all the names mentioned in your question since they cowrote the songs in question. 

In my book Sounds Like Teen Spirit, I describe how the Rolling Stones had to credit KD Lang as co-author of their song "Anybody Seen My Baby" because it had the same melody as Lang's hit "Constant Craving." 

The similarity was noticed by Keith Richard's daughters, NOT by the Stones' producers or engineers. Or perhaps they did notice but were afraid to speak up?

What's next for cases like these? Is there going to be a precedent we will measure the validity of these claims at face value with, or is the burden of proof always going to be on the "victim" to go at length to demonstrate how this is plagiarized?

Tim: Yes, the burden is on the plaintiff as described below.

Also, probably most importantly, how do you go about proving plagiarism in court? What all is considered?


Tim: A plaintiff must first prove "access," showing that the accused could have heard the song they are accused of plagiarizing. (This is the reason many major artists have a policy of refusing to listen to unsolicited songs submitted by outside writers, lest they be sued at a later date.) 

Following that, there is a two-part test to prove "substantial similarity." 

Intrinsic similarity asks if the typical person would find that the two songs sound alike. Extrinsic similarity is an objective approach in which each side will question musicologists to show how notes, chords, time signatures, etc are the same or different. 

Because one half of the test is so subjective, and because jurors are not musicologists, many of these cases are settled before they ever go to court.


OUTLOOK: Okay, so, basically, given the history of out-of-court settlements and legal action taken against Led Zeppelin, paired with the critical detail of "proof of access" (remember: Led Zeppelin went on tour WITH Spirit, so access is definitely likely there), things don't look good for LZ. 

But to what end? Is "Stairway to Heaven" actually that good of a song? Is it an untouchable classic? Is LZ still considered great, or will taking this last (is it actually the last?) L in court do irreparable damage to their legacy? Who knows? We don't. Maybe Tim English does. 

Check out his book Sounds Like Teen Spirit, and keep your ears peeled for other songs that sound exactly like other songs (which is just about every other day in the world of Top 40). 


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