As Led Zeppelin Faces Copyright Charges, The Line Between Plagiarism And Homage

Jun 18, 2016
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Stairway To Heaven," 1971 - you don't need to hear it again - one of the most recognizable songs in rock history. And this week, a court in California's been hearing a copyright infringement lawsuit that claims the song is more than just inspired by a previous song called "Taurus" that was released three years earlier by the band Spirit. Now, this lawsuit is brought by a trust that's acting in behalf of the late Randy Wolfe. He was a founding member of Spirit. They played on the same bill as Led Zeppelin in 1968. We're going to go now to Joe Bennett, a forensic musicologist and vice president of academic affairs at the Boston Conservatory. And he joins us over Skype. Mr. Bennett, thanks so much for being with us.

JOE BENNETT: Good to speak with you.

SIMON: So how's that sound to you?

BENNETT: Well, there are certainly some objective factual similarities. The thing that's been most discussed in recent days is that chromatic descending bass line. So just to recap, here's "Stairway" that everybody knows.

(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPELIN SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

BENNETT: So underneath those high arpeggios, you've got this descending note line.

(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPELIN SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")

BENNETT: So five notes. And then you hear those five notes in the context of "Taurus," and they sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRIT SONG, "TAURUS")

BENNETT: So the question becomes how original is that idea?

(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRIT SONG, "TAURUS")

SIMON: Yeah, well, that's why we're calling you (laughter).

BENNETT: Indeed (laughter).

SIMON: You're a musicologist, right? Does it - did - is - did those notes first get revealed to the world in 1968 or what?

BENNETT: Well, there's quite a lot of evidence that they appeared substantially before that. Some people suggest that they were composed as early as the 1600s by a composer called Giovanni Battista Granata. There's a melody that emerges about 30 seconds into one of his works that actually sounds more similar to "Stairway To Heaven" than to "Taurus."

(SOUNDBITE OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA GRANATA PIECE "SONATA DI CHITTARRA"

BENNETT: We can certainly say that they appear in "My Funny Valentine" in 1937. So if I played that song in A minor, so same key, (singing) my funny valentine, sweet comic valentine, you make me smile. So you got that same idea going on, that chromatic descending bass line with a minor chord on top.

SIMON: Are these things theft or inspiration? Are they a homages?

BENNETT: This is why each case is different and why there is always a discussion to be had. And in popular music, there are so many ideas that are very commonly used. These ideas can be freely copied between songwriters. They're not considered plagiarism. An obvious example would be chord loops. So one of the most famous chord loops is C, G, A minor and F.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)

BENNETT: There's so many songs that could be. 1987, U2's "With Or Without You." (Singing) With or without you. With or without you, oh. And so on. Or John Denver, 1971. (Singing) Take me home, country roads, to the place I belong. And there's...

SIMON: Excuse me, there is nothing funnier than a British man singing - take me home to West Virginia.

BENNETT: Country roads. West Virginia, mountain mama (laughter).

SIMON: I think - this has got nothing to do with what we're talking about - you do a really wonderful version of "Funny Valentine." Could we go out on that?

BENNETT: Sure (laughter). It might be quite fun to try and play "Stairway To Heaven" under "My Funny Valentine" melody.

SIMON: Sure.

BENNETT: (Singing) Oh, funny valentine, sweet, comic valentine, you make me smile with my heart.

SIMON: Chet Baker couldn't have done better than that.

BENNETT: That's great to hear. Thank you very much.

SIMON: Joe Bennett, forensic musicologist at the Boston Conservatory. Thanks so much for being with us.

BENNETT: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY FUNNY VALENTINE")

CHET BAKER: (Singing) My funny valentine, sweet, comic valentine.

SIMON: Maybe Chet Baker's a little better. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.