What are music royalties? Music writing credits of over $600,000 for Jimmy Page and a plus $500,000 figure for Robert Plant’s share of them provide a robust definition indeed. That is the amount — and counting — that the famous front men of the legendary rock group consisting of four British lads have taken home to date for their song “Stairway to Heaven.”
You’ll probably be asking the next question almost as a matter of course. How then does one qualify for such music royalties (“I have got to get in on this”)? That appears to be the logic behind the estate of Randy California. It is a shame that this whole lawsuit business can only negatively reflect upon the career of the musician and his group “Spirit.”
Now instead of hearkening to the heroic memory of a father giving his life for his son, it will be “Oh, that’s the guy who…” The truth is that musicians have always borrowed from each other — some more than others — and that there is not anything new under the sun.
The proceedings of the Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven trial illustrate how difficult it can sometimes be to fairly rule on the authorship of a given copyrighted song. Where is that gossamer line that determines if Spirit’s song “Taurus” was stolen or that its construction employed common musical tools like notes and chords. Real musicians will all know the basic things like dotted eighth notes and sixteenth notes, juggled into triplets, quarter notes and grace notes.
The music industry’s top artists are often asked to cite their musical influences. What separates when they have been influenced by a piece of music from when they have stolen that music?
At some point in a musician’s career — if he or she is lucky — instead of playing covers of their favorite musicians, they begin to gain confidence and write their own words and music. But how much of what comes out should not cite the artists they copied?
The early Rolling Stones and Beatles albums and singles all freely copied the music of Chuck Berry. Many other founding fathers of the blues and then rock and roll, with names like Willie Dixon, BB King, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and a Hall of Fame of others, also led the way.
Chuck Berry could have easily sued the Beach Boys for “Surfing USA.” The music for that Beach Boys classic is pretty much note for note lifted from Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” But Berry had more class than to drag his own good name through the courts. Plus he also had earned plenty of money of his own.
Now Led Zeppelin and their legions of fans can ramble on in the sure and certain knowledge that their heroes are still their heroes. The whole crux of the case rested upon whether or not the descending guitar lines in “Stairway” were taken from Spirit’s “Taurus.”
As it turned out, a competent authority testified that each piece took from an accepted guitar theory. To which all guitarists are indebted. It was music that was established centuries ago. Something old was made new again. That was in the old days, when it might be said that finer tastes prevailed. George Harrison experienced a similar difficulty with his iconic hit “My Sweet Lord.”
Only for George it wasn’t as happy an ending as it was for Jimmy and Robert, who received full vindication from judge and jury.