It’s hard for musicians to make money these days – given the drain of file-sharing and the lousy wages of streaming.
But an increasing number of artists have found another way to generate funds: lawsuits against each other.
In the past few years a rash of high-profile legal actions have been launched by stars or their estates over copyright infringement.
Artists such as Kendrick Lamar – Sam Smith and Robin Thicke have each stood accused of stealing sounds from other musicians in their songs – forcing them either to wage costly court battles or to settle the suits privately for undisclosed sums.
The latest and mostly hotly anticipated case starts on 10 May.
It will pit the estate of one member of the 60s psychedelic rock band Spirit against the lead writers of Led Zeppelin – Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
The suit contends that the Brit-rockers lifted a portion of a 1968 instrumental by Spirit called Taurus – for the opening chords of their 1971 FM radio classic Stairway To Heaven.
The family of Randy Craig Wolfe – deceased author of Taurus – first made these allegations several years ago but it’s only coming to trial now.
Zeppelin’s decision not to settle carries significant risk.
Last year Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay a record-setting $7.2m to the estate of Marvin Gaye after a court ruled that they pilfered parts of the soul icon’s 1977 song Got to Give It Up for their smash Blurred Lines.
That ruling is currently being appealed.
To avoid judgments so consequential other stars have made undisclosed payoffs to the aggrieved.
Yet even when artists avoid the garishness and whims of a jury trial the attendant publicity puts the accused in a shady light.
Worse the recent escalation in plagiarism cases sets a precedent so onerous it could make many musicians spend more time in court than on the road.
In fact most such cases ignore the wide range of sounds and performance styles that fans hear and respond to when listening to a record.
A broad array of elements draws us to a song and ultimately those elements define the piece to a far finer degree than the isolated often lesser sections which set these cases in motion.
In Led Zeppelin’s case, both the Page and Wolfe songs spin on an A minor arpeggio.
That’s a progression that as even the judge on the case has acknowledged has been employed by many songwriters.
While the early notes in each piece sound similar there are key variations.
Most crucially the arpeggio in Taurus does not resolve – the one in Stairway does – changing the whole flavor of this section of the song and creating its own melodic hook.
Without that final rounding of the notes as created by Page the opening of Stairway wouldn’t have had nearly the same resonance it has had.