Western music is made up of just 12 notes, which yield a practically infinite number of songs. That’s the theory, at least. It’s only natural that composers mimic what’s been successful in the past, but as Robin Thicke and Pharrell learned the hard way, there’s a blurred line between inspiration and theft. And musical copyright continues to be a hot-button issue, affecting everyone from Madonna and Justin Bieber to the mighty Led Zeppelin.
The highly publicized battle over “Stairway to Heaven,” which goes to trial on June 14th, has the potential to open the floodgates for copyright litigation. The originality of the song’s first verse – the haunting arpeggiated chord progression hailed by music historians and classic rock-fans alike – is the crux of the suit. Seventies-era L.A. rock band Spirit brought a suit against Zeppelin, alleging that “Stairway” infringed upon its song “Taurus.” While Spirit may be lesser-known, the plaintiff has so far proven that after they toured with Zeppelin in 1969, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant would reasonably have heard “Taurus” before recording “Stairway” in 1970. And the two works are – as copyright experts say – “substantially similar.”
In April, Judge R. Gary Klausner of United States District Court affirmed as much, denying Led Zeppelin’s request for summary judgment, saying: “While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend the core structure.”
The fight over publishing rights and songwriting credits is becoming ferocious as physical music sales plummet and songwriting becomes an increasingly collaborative process. In advance of the “Stairway” showdown, read on for 10 of the most infamous copyright infringement cases in pop music history. From lyrical lifts and unlicensed sampling, to melodies that sound just a tad too similar, there are many points of contention. Are the original artists looking out for their intellectual property or their bank balance? The jury is out.