Blurred Lines in “Stairway?”

May 26, 2016

Music copyright law really can feel like it’s all about “Blurred Lines.” Remember the lawsuit Marvin Gaye’s estate filed against singers/songwriters Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for alleged music plagiarism and copyright violation of “Got to Give it Up?” Those same blurred lines are going to be household conversation again when a California jury decides whether Led Zeppelin ripped the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” from an instrumental composition called “Taurus” by Spirit.

The question that seems to come up again and again is this: Where is the line between theft and inspiration? The answer is extremely unsatisfying. Are you ready? It depends.

It is up to attorneys for the defense to show a jury that the elements of a composition that sound copied are part of a larger musical connotation that isn’t specific to a particular, individual work.To find infringement (1) the infringing party must have had access to the allegedly copied work; and (2) the infringing work must bear substantial similarities to the copied work.

A song can share the same historically or commonly used chord progression or reference to era in sound. The songs can sound similar. As seen in the suit against Williams and Thicke, the question is whether exact elements were copied. Gaye’s attorney (and ultimately the jury) said that the exact percussion, timing of vocals, and even bass line were directly and exactly transposed from “Got to Give it Up” to “Blurred Lines;” The “compositional elements” were stolen.

There are plenty of good defenses to copyright infringement claims just as there are plenty of valid claims against infringing works, but we’ll get into that after the Zeppelin verdict. In the meantime, go listen to all these works yourself and see what you think…

“Taurus” by Spirit

“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin

(And for reference or jamming out: “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give it Up”)

Also, Rolling Stone published an article about some pre-trial shenanigans that may or may not be happening.