ARUN RATH, HOST:
Everyone who knows rock 'n' roll knows this opening riff.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")
RATH: Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" - but play it side-by-side with this other song...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAURUS")
RATH: ...And it sounds almost the same, except this song, "Taurus," came out three years before Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven." That was more than four decades ago, but just this week, a judge moved forward with a lawsuit against the members of Led Zeppelin and their music publishers. "Taurus" was written by Randy California, founding member of the band "Spirit." He died in 1997, but his heirs want compensation for plagiarism and a song-writing credit. I turned to Eriq Gardner of the Hollywood Reporter to explain.
ERIQ GARDNER: The judge will basically hear both songs. Both sides will bring forth musicologists. And they'll debate whether the songs are really similar.
RATH: But this judge could have no musical knowledge at all, right?
GARDNER: Yes, and that adds the wildcard factor to this because no one knows what a judge in Pennsylvania is going to say. I mean, Pennsylvania - there's very few cases that have examined copyright infringement in songcraft.
RATH: Why is it in Pennsylvania, though?
GARDNER: The only thing that I can really think of is that the lawyer for the plaintiffs is based in Pennsylvania. If the plaintiffs wanted to have a tactical advantage, they probably would've sued in Nashville, the songwriter capital of the world. And if they wanted this to be convenient for the parties, they would've sued in California, where a lot of the plaintiffs and witnesses are and - as well as a lot of the music defendants.
RATH: Why is it going through now, forty-three years after "Stairway To Heaven" was released?
GARDNER: Time goes on. Randy California dies. His heirs start thinking that they might have a claim. Rock historians have suspected that at least the opening notes to "Stairway To Heaven" were lifted from the song "Taurus." And a lawyer comes forward, willing to work on contingency, and voila - a law suit.
RATH: Now, this is not the first time that Led Zeppelin has been accused of lifting songs. I mean, can you tell us about their - some of their checkered history with this?
GARDNER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, some of their biggest songs - "Whole Lotta Love" and "Dazed And Confused" - those have been brought up in court before.
RATH: Let's hear the original "Dazed And Confused" by American folk singer Jake Holmes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAZED AND CONFUSED")
JAKE HOLMES: (Singing) I'm dazed and confused. Is it stay? Is it go? Am I being choosed? Well, I'd just like to know.
RATH: And here, of course, is Led Zeppelin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAZED AND CONFUSED")
LED ZEPPELIN: Been dazed and confused for so long. It's not true. Wanted a woman. Never bargained for you.
RATH: Unlike the song - the Spirit song and "Stairway To Heaven" - this one - that's the same song.
GARDNER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's fairly unmistakable. And, you know, one of the things that courts consider is just what do regular people - what are they going to think about the two songs? Do they hear similarities?
RATH: Finally, in the interest of stirring up some more controversy, here's another track, recorded in 1975 - a song called "We Used To."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE USED TO")
DOLLY PARTON: We used to walk through fields of green.
RATH: So, Eriq, do you think that Led Zeppelin or Spirit have grounds to sue Dolly Parton?
GARDNER: (Laughter) Yeah, well, this sort of thing happens a lot in music. I mean, there's only so many notes in the music vocabulary. That being said, you know, it's unmistakable. You can hear the similarities. There is also a concept known as transformative use. One person might do something, and another person might take what's already been made and make it different or make it better or make it a commentary on what came before. So, you know, fair use plays a good part in this discussion, as well.
RATH: Eriq Gardner from the Hollywood Reporter. Eriq, really interesting stuff. Thank you.
GARDNER: Thanks for having me.
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