Laughable Legal Battle Over Song
You may have heard that there was a legal battle over who actually wrote the song in 2016. This made headlines all over the world.
In this excellent article by Matthew DeBord, he points out that the actual progression is much older than the twentieth century. This is probably a fact that the vast majority of people playing the song would not know.
Legal cases involving claims of musical plagiarism often lead to strange eruptions of musicological discourse in the halls of justice. Not long ago, the heirs of Marvin Gaye alleged that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’s song “Blurred Lines” infringed upon the copyright of Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” A typical passage from the court documents: “[The defendants] argue that, as a matter of law, the 6-1-1-1 hook in ‘Blurred Lines,’ which is in the key of G and set to an E chord in the first measure and an A chord in the second measure, is not similar to the 6-1-2-1 hook in ‘Got to Give It Up,’ which is in the key of A and set to an A7 chord.” The jury was unswayed by such strict formalism and instead embraced a more holistic view, according to which—in the words of a prior ruling involving Mariah Carey—“no approach can completely divorce pitch sequence and rhythm from harmonic chord progression, tempo, and key, and thereby support a conclusion that compositions are dissimilar as a matter of law.” Although the case is still in litigation, the jury made a preliminary award of $7.4 million to Gaye’s family. And they say that music education is irrelevant.
He goes on to discuss the Led Zeppelin case in which he contextualises the descending bass line within the Renaissance period.
The latest case is Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin et al., and one can only hope that it ends up before the Supreme Court, so that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg can at long last get the Led out.* Skidmore represents the estate of Randy Craig Wolfe, a.k.a. Randy California, the guitarist of Spirit, a Los Angeles band whose discography includes “The Family That Plays Together” and “The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.” The suit claims that the finger-picking opening of Led Zeppelin’s 1971 song “Stairway to Heaven,” the stuff of a million teen-age guitar lessons, is taken from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.” The plaintiff cites the expert testimony of Alexander Stewart, a professor of music at the University of Vermont and a self-described “forensic musicologist,” who argues that the two songs “feature the same chords during the first three measures and an unusual variation on the traditional chromatic descending bass line in the fourth measure.” Stewart also states that both songs exude “a decidedly ‘classical’ style, particularly evoking a Renaissance atmosphere.” The defendants respond by positing that “the descending chromatic bass line is a centuries-old, common musical element not entitled to protection.” Judge R. Gary Klausner, in sending the case to trial, seemed persuaded by the plaintiff’s analysis, commenting that the “descending bass line is played at the same pitch, repeated twice, and separated by a short bridge in both songs.”
You can read the whole unabridged article which is well worth a read at the following link. read more at newyorker.com
On our next page in this feature we will look at how the song continues to be pushed on Twitter and Reddit.[amazon box=”0739093525″]