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Posted on Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Led Zeppelin’s Victory on the Stairway to Heaven

Led Zeppelin emerged victorious in their recent copyright infringement lawsuit against the estate of founding Spirit guitarist, Randy
Wolfe, proving once and for all that their smash hit, Stairway To Heaven, is a
unique composition and arguably one of the most successful Rock and Roll songs
of all time. But in addition to asserting Stairway’s dominance, this landmark
decision could possibly change the music industry’s copyright infringement
battle ground in the coming years.
Today, popular artists and their hit songs are often facing
critical scrutiny. This new trend has led to an abundance of infringement
accusations in the last decade. While some cases, such as the Sam Smith’s “Stay
With Me” dispute, have been legitimate, other lawsuits, such as the Taylor
Swift’s “Shake It Off” debacle, are viewed by many as completely unfounded.
Especially after last year’s controversial “Blurred Lines” decision, which
required the hit’s songwriters to pay over 5.3 million dollars in damages for
replicating the “feel” of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” many artists have
been afraid that creative inspiration will inevitably turn into an expensive
and time-consuming copyright lawsuit which will, in turn, stifle artistic
creativity.
Thankfully, because of Led Zeppelin’s recent victory, common
musical motifs, such as a descending chromatic scale, are now officially not copyrightable, restoring a level of creative freedom that could have been
relinquished after 2015’s “Blurred Lines” verdict. Additionally, it is
predicted that this legal triumph could diminish future gratuitous copyright allegations now that songwriters can see that these cases are difficult to win.
This case reminds artists that music is rooted in inspiration.
For example, in 2009, musical comedy group, The Axis Of Awesome, compiled
together 40 pop songs into one mashup in order to prove that musicians have
been rehashing the “I-V-vi-IV” chord progression for decades. Although these
artists all were inspired by their influences and incorporated the same musical
motif, very few of the compiled songs actually sound similar when listened to
side by side. In other words, chord progressions are not subject to copyright protection, much like ideas or facts. If one artist could claim a limited monopoly on a musical progression, then the world would be deprived of future
artistic creations and music would remain stagnant. Now that Led Zeppelin has
defeated their legal opposition, musicians can now officially stand by the fact
that chord progressions are useful tools that hopefully can be utilized without
fear of infringement. In the end, this trial will go down in history as an
important victory for artistic creativity.

 

Matt Wagner is a law
clerk at Berenzweig Leonard, LLP who is currently studying Music Business and
Songwriting at Belmont University.



Seth Berenzweig is the managing partner of  Berenzweig Leonard, LLP, works with artists and musicians, and is a member of the  Recording Academy. He can be reached at sberenzweig@BerenzweigLaw.com.

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