Let’s Talk About the Led Zeppelin Plagiarism Trial That Starts Tuesday

Did Jimmy Page and Robert Plant cop some of the guitar bits for “Stairway to Heaven” from an instrumental entitled “Taurus” by a band called Spirit? The allegations have swirled for decades. Now a California jury will decide. This will be big one. Very big. The New York Times reports:

Beyoncé is on tour, Drake is setting streaming records and Taylor Swift has split up with her boyfriend. But next week, the most gripping news for the music industry may come out of a federal courtroom in Los Angeles.

There, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin will be defending themselves against a lawsuit claiming that parts of “Stairway to Heaven” — the band’s signature hit and a pillar of rock radio since the song’s release in 1971 — were copied from “Taurus,” an instrumental tune by the lesser-known group Spirit.

The trial, set to start on June 14 with Mr. Page and Mr. Plant expected to be in attendance, may prove fascinating legal theater for fans. But it will also be closely watched by a music business that is grappling with a series of recent copyright decisions.

Last year, a federal jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had copied Marvin Gaye in Mr. Thicke’s 2013 hit song “Blurred Lines,” and ordered Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams to pay $7.4 million (later reduced to $5.3 million). Industry commentators said the decision penalized elements of songs long thought of as being fair game, like the generic “feel” of a recording, and warned of a chilling effect on creativity.

That case and others like it, lawyers and music executives say, have raised new questions about songwriting and copyright — issues long a part of the background of litigation in the industry. They have also led to increased scrutiny whenever a song’s credits are challenged or changed, as they were a year ago when co-writers were quietly added to Mark Ronson’s retro hit “Uptown Funk.”

I’ve long maintained that the “Blurred Lines” trial would lead to a series of similar cases. I fear I may be right.

LA correspondent Pamela Chelin will be in the courtroom for the duration of the trial. Let’s see where this goes.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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