It's a time-tested, if not always a time-honored, tradition in pop music: accusations of copyright infringement over a classic song. In this case, protectors of the estate of Randy California, lead guitarist and songwriter of 1960s Los Angeles-based band Spirit, argue that Led Zeppelin may have lifted a key element of the arena-rock anthem "Stairway to Heaven" from an earlier Spirit composition, "Taurus."
An attorney hired by California's estate announced plans to file a copyright infringement suit that will seek a co-writing credit for California on Zeppelin's song, which will surface anew in June in remastered vinyl and CD deluxe reissues of Zeppelin's album catalog.
"The idea behind this is to make sure that Randy California is given a writing credit on 'Stairway to Heaven,'" Philadelphia attorney Francis Alexander Malofiy told Bloomberg Businessweek recently. "It's been a long time coming."
Through a spokesman, Led Zeppelin and its record label, Warner Music, have declined to comment.
It's not the first time Zeppelin has faced a question of copyright infringement. The group altered credits for the songs "Whole Lotta Love" and "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" in the wake of similar accusations and in 2012 settled an infringement suit over the song "Dazed and Confused."
Where there's a hit, there's a potential lawsuit, and it's not uncommon for musicians to be hit with court actions in the days, weeks, months or years after a song becomes a major success. Most such suits don't go to trial and are settled out of court.
The Verve lost a case involving the Rolling Stones for a sample of their producer-manager Andrew Oldham's orchestral recording of the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards 1965 hit "The Last Time" in the Verve's breakthrough 1998 hit "Bitter Sweet Symphony," and all royalties from that song were awarded to the Stones' camp. The Verve's Richard Ashcroft subsequently quipped that "Bitter Sweet Symphony" was "the best song Jagger and Richards have written in 20 years."
In one of the most amicable instances of creating songwriting justice, R.E.M. voluntarily gave Leonard Cohen a co-writing credit on its 1998 song "Hope" after the Athens, Ga., band finished it and realized it was too close for comfort to Cohen's 1968 song "Suzanne."
There was no court action but considerable Internet chatter just last year when fans noticed similarities between Sara Bareilles' ode to empowerment, "Brave," and Katy Perry's subsequent ode to empowerment "Roar." At least one fan posted a mash-up on YouTube putting the tracks simultaneously to let listeners decide whether the two were similar.
Bareilles dismissed any talk of litigation, saying she liked Perry and the attention the pop star had brought to "Brave" by tweeting enthusiastically about it when it was released. After the "Brave" vs. "Roar" debate began, Bareilles tweeted: "All love, everybody. All love."
Appropriation of music has a long history, and only comparatively recently has it been a source of litigation.
It was common practice for song melodies or lyrics to be repurposed by new generations of singers, one of the highest profile examples being Britain's musical ode to its monarch, "God Save the King/Queen," being refashioned across the Atlantic into "My Country 'Tis of Thee."
Musician and folklorist A.P. Carter of the seminal country music trio the Carter Family built a career out of collecting existing folk and gospel songs, lifting melodies and/or lyrics directly or slightly modifying them, then copyrighting them under his own name.
Folk-protest music icon Woody Guthrie tapped the melody from a Carter Family gospel song, "When the World's on Fire," added new lyrics he wrote in exasperation after hearing Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" endlessly in the 1930s and came up with "This Land Is Your Land."
The practice in common parlance is referred to as "the folk process," something that's been adopted by generations of singers and songwriters.
Many of Bob Dylan's songs use earlier source material for melodic or lyrical inspiration. Dylan was the target in a widely publicized debate over whether he'd stolen lines for a song on his 2001 album "Love and Theft" from the memoir of a Japanese gangster, "Confessions of a Yakuza."
In the wake of that discussion, Dylan told Rolling Stone: "In folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. It's true for everybody but me. There are different rules for me."
Early on in the rock era, Chuck Berry sued the Beach Boys, claiming that their song "Surfing U.S.A." had infringed on his song "Sweet Little Sixteen." Berry has since received a co-writing credit on reissues of that 1964 hit.
Berry also won a copyright infringement case against John Lennon for the similarities between the Beatles' "Come Together" and Berry's "You Can't Catch Me." The result was a settlement in which Lennon agreed to record Berry's song and two others owned by the song's publisher on his 1975 oldies album "Rock & Roll," thus generating more songwriting royalties for Berry and the publisher.
The song "Taurus" is a 2-minute 37-second instrumental track from Spirit's 1968 self-titled debut album. It opens with an expansive, atmospheric orchestral section that lasts for 45 seconds before giving way to a finger-picked acoustic guitar segment, three measures of which feature the same chord progression that Zeppelin used in the opening of "Stairway to Heaven."
"Stairway" first surfaced in 1971 on the group's untitled fourth album, commonly referred to as "Led Zeppelin IV." The three measures of the riff in question last about 10 seconds.
Spirit founding member Mark Andes pointed out that Zeppelin and Spirit played several shows together in 1968 and 1969, with Zeppelin opening for the rock outfit while establishing itself in the U.S. Andes said that "Taurus" was a regular part of Spirit's set during those tours.
"It was such a pretty moment, and it would typically come after a big forceful number and always got a good response," Andes told Bloomberg. "They would have seen it in that context."
Randy California drowned in 1997, but months before he died he addressed the song during an interview for the winter 1997 issue of Listener magazine, in which he said, "I'd say it was a rip-off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said 'Thank you,' never said, 'Can we pay you some money for it?' It's kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it."
The biggest hurdle for California's estate may be the question of statute of limitations: If there had been conscious or unconscious appropriation of "Taurus" by Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, it took place 45 years ago. Andes said the estate waited until now to take action because it didn't have the money previously to mount a lawsuit. He said it was only recently that he noticed the similarities in the two songs.
"The clarity seems to be a present-day clarity, not at the time of infringement," he told Businessweek. "I can't explain it. It is fairly blatant, and note for note. It would just be nice if the Led Zeppelin guys gave Randy a little nod. That would be lovely."
In 2008, Conde Nast Portfolio estimated that Zeppelin's song had generated $562 million over time in record sales and publishing royalties.
Although the members of Led Zeppelin are remaining mum about this new claim, rock's most celebrated songwriter said on the subject of appropriation: "It's called songwriting."