Not All That Glitters Is Gold: Led Zeppelin’s Questionable Songwriting Ethics

Many plagiarism allegations, settled both in and out of courtrooms, lurk within Led Zeppelin’s discography. Allegations ranging from incorrect songwriting attribution to explicit plagiarism have followed the legendary rock group throughout their entire career. However, considering the clouded circumstances surrounding accusations of plagiarism against the band, especially those that were settled outside of court, it is strange that these claims have not impacted the band’s reputation with their audience on a larger scale. Despite multiple accusations of copyright infringement, the band’s music has remained a staple for rock ‘n’ roll fans for nearly 50 years. Their music is used in soundtracks for current movies, played daily on classic rock radio stations, and Led Zeppelin merchandise, records, and apparel can still be purchased in virtually any music store.

 In this article, a brief context will be provided regarding Led Zeppelin’s most public plagiarism accusations, both legal and informal, so that readers can understand the magnitude, or lack thereof, of these accusations. Then, four possibilities as to why Zeppelin has maintained a positive ethos, or reputation, with their loyal fan base despite their questionable songwriting ethics will be presented. The fact that the band has never lost a copyright lawsuit, the timing of the most well-known plagiarism accusations, the attitude of the band’s audience, and the band’s mindset about the creation of Led Zeppelin, their major label debut, are four factors that have allowed Led Zeppelin to maintain a positive ethos with their fans, despite their shady songwriting practices.

 

 Within the parameters of this article, ethos, the Greek term for a person’s moral character, can be defined as the reputation of an individual or organized collection of individuals (a sports team, a band, a company, etc.) that is “created by a person’s habits…rather than by [their] experiences.” The ancient Greek rhetoricians identified two distinct types of ethos: invented ethos and situated ethos. Invented ethos refers to the way an individual intentionally presents themselves in a particular situation. For example, even if members of a band practice immoral behaviors behind closed doors, such as using drugs or treating their producers and managers badly, they may choose to present themselves as clean-cut, kind people on stage because they want to ensure the goodwill of their audience. These deliberate actions may win over a band’s audience, but it does not mean the members of the band actually have sound moral character; in fact, many may consider the idea of only presenting oneself as moral when the situation demands it to be immoral.

Examples of the band’s invented ethos can be analyzed in the way they reacted to out-of-courtroom accusations- was their decision to give songwriting credits to original writers only because they wished to remain reputable in the public eye? Or did they do so because they truly believed they had wronged other artists and wished to amend their unethical behavior?

Situated ethos  refers to more modern connotations of character and reputation. This type of ethical proof refers not to how an individual molds their image, but to how an audience perceives the individual, as well as why they perceive them this way. The audience’s perception of character and reputation derives from many things, including “feelings of liking or disliking,” the intensity of those feelings, and the individual’s charisma. The following three examples display instances where Led Zeppelin’s ethos as songwriters was challenged; allegations against the band can be understood as attempts to alter Zeppelin’s situated ethos.

In 2003, Rolling Stone placed Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album at No. 29 on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. When the record was first released on January 12, 1969, it contained seven songs credited to songwriters John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant; two of the nine songs on the record were correctly credited to their original writers. By the time the album made Rolling Stone’s list 34 years later, Led Zeppelin’s track listing had undergone an unprecedented amount of scrutiny due to multiple accusations of plagiarism and copyright infringement. When the album was remastered and re-released 11 years later in 2014, the revised liner notes had been adjusted to reflect the origins of Zeppelin’s material a bit more accurately.

The re-released record now lists five original Led Zeppelin tracks, (two less than the original release did), two songs written by Willie Dixon, and two songs whose credits have been revamped to acknowledge artists who “inspired” and collaborated with Page and Plant. However, there is great debate on whether Page and Plant deserve to be listed as contributors on these “inspired” songs at all; inspiration credits were only added when other artists accused Led Zeppelin of stealing their musical and intellection property, but settled for inspiration credits opposed to taking their cases to court.

Photo by Salvador Martinez

Zeppelin’s alleged plagiarism did not stop with their first album. In 1987, Willie Dixon, the artist who was given songwriting credit for “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You, Baby” on Led Zeppelin, withdrew his second lawsuit against the rock group over the rights to “Whole Lotta Love” and “Bring It On Home,” two tracks off the band’s second album, Led Zeppelin II. A news clipping from Variety, a Los Angeles music magazine, in 1987 states that Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for using one of his guitar melodies, which was written by Dixon and recorded by blues legend Muddy Waters, as the opening riff in “Whole Lotta Love,” and for explicitly stealing his music and lyrics and using them verbatim in “Bring It On Home,” a song written by Dixon but recorded by Sonny Boy Williamson. The news report continues to explain that the case was settled out of court after a witness told the judge that “Whole Lotta Love” consisted of variations on Dixon’s “You Need Love.” The judge, in turn, insisted that “variations” are differences, and that differences do not equate to plagiarism. While Dixon dropped the case, he later settled it out of court, achieving both partial song credit and some royalties from “Whole Lotta Love.” The track is now credited to Bonham, Dixon, Jones, Page, Plant.

The most notable case against Led Zeppelin was settled in 2016 when the band was sued over the rights to the opening guitar melody on one of their most famous tracks, “Stairway to Heaven.” The estate of Randy Wolfe, the late guitarist of the American rock band Spirit, filed charges against Page and Plant, Led Zeppelin’s primary songwriters, in 2014. The charges claimed that Led Zeppelin, after touring with Spirit and even covering some of their songs during live sets, used the same riff from Spirit’s “Taurus” as the opening guitar melody in “Stairway to Heaven.”The ruling of the case was determined by Judge Klausner, the same judge who awarded the estate of Marvin Gaye $5.3 million over the rights to the music from Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s “Happy” in 2015. Klausner concluded that while Led Zeppelin may have borrowed from their influencers, the majority of their work was their own. This ruling did not satisfy the prosecution, who claimed that Zeppelin‘s alleged plagiarism is a “falsification of rock & roll history.”

As of 2018, Led Zeppelin has yet to lose a copyright lawsuit; any added songwriting credits or royalties were settled outside of courtrooms. This may be one reason that many fans still attribute a positive ethos to Led Zeppelin despite the controversy surrounding their songwriting. Listeners who love a band and/or their music will obviously be wary of any accusations against an artist they love. Therefore, Zeppelin’s “clean” legal record allows dedicated fans to easily dismiss any accusations since there is no recorded evidence stating that the group intentionally ripped off other artists. However, a clean legal record does not equate to a reputable character. One of the reasons Zeppelin has escaped losing lawsuits is because many artists who accused the band of stealing their intellectual property opted to settle their disputes outside of a courtroom after realizing how difficult it often is to prove that an artist has plagiarized material in a court of law.

As the technique of remixing, especially in electronic music, has grown more popular, it has become increasingly difficult for a judge and jury to make clear decisions over whether a song has been plagiarized. American journalist Lisa Suhay states that “the question of ownership has shifted from being about copyrights on lyrics and scores, to scores of nuanced lawsuits over chord progressions and melodies.” Because recent copyright cases have become about minute details, the jury is ultimately left to evaluate the arbitrary “concept and feel” of the songs. As the line between remix and plagiarism becomes increasingly blurred, so does the difficulty between differentiating inspiration from plagiarism. For this reason, the rulings of court cases cannot be the sole factor on which an audience bases their situated ethos concerning Led Zeppelin’s songwriting ethics.

Another factor that has allowed Led Zeppelin to maintain their situated ethos with their fan base is the timing of the band’s most recent, and arguably most public, copyright lawsuit. When the estate of Randy Wolfe filed charges against Page and Plant in 2014, it had been 34 years since the death of the Bonham, the band’s drummer, and 32 years since the group had released an original studio album. The lawsuit, which finally went to court in the summer of 2016, was different from previous accusations against the band for three reasons: not only was it one of the few lawsuits that actually reached a decision in a courtroom, but unlike the previous cases in the band’s early career, it took place in an era of increased media coverage and social media presence. Additionally, the prosecution accused Zeppelin of using Spirit’s guitar melody virtually note-for-note; previous accusations against the band mainly stated that they allegedly used pre-existing riffs or lyrics and altered them in a new, “original” way.

The difference in the public perception between Dixon’s 1985 accusations and the claims of Wolfe’s estate in 2016 demonstrates how the time period of each suit could have easily shaken the band’s ethos if it had happened earlier, or while all members of the band were still living. In 1987, an article less than a column in length ran in Variety informing fans of the outcome of Dixon’s lawsuit against the band. Not only did Dixon drop the suit, but news of the entire ordeal was not well known; interested readers would have had to read the short column on two separate pages to obtain a bare minimum of information about the case.

Photo by Salvador Martinez

The 2016 lawsuit, however, occurred in an age of accessible social media. A simple Google search containing the terms “Led Zeppelin plagiarism” will result in hundreds of news articles that offer different perspectives on the case, as well as links to hear the music under scrutiny. If the “Stairway to Heaven” charges were filed shortly after the release of “Led Zeppelin IV”, the result may have been drastically different. Since the song was one of the group’s biggest hits, the case may have received more media attention, which could have potentially altered fans’ perceptions of Zeppelin’s ethos. Additionally, the circumstances surrounding the timing of the lawsuit are also relevant. When charges were filed in 2014, only three members of Led Zeppelin were alive, and the band has ceased to produce original music 32 years earlier. Even if the public had boycotted Zeppelin because of these allegations, it would not have tremendously affected their ethos or career because the band had disbanded over three decades earlier and had already obtained a status as rock legends. If the band was currently producing original material, there may have been lashback from their fans. However, as demonstrated by the successful solo careers of all three living members, any recent copyright lawsuits do not seem to have shaken their reputation.

For much of the band’s audience, Zeppelin’s alleged plagiarism has not largely affected their perception of the band or their music because these listeners do not associate an artist’s work with their personal lives, politics, or morals. This phenomenon, known in some academic fields as the art versus artistry debate, separates the artist from the content they create. Thus, listeners free themselves from ethical or moral obligations and enjoy Led Zeppelin’s music while completely separating it from the individual lives of Bonham, Jones, Page, and Plant.

According to a survey of 137 people who consider themselves Led Zeppelin fans, 69.3 percent of fans surveyed reported that they were aware of the 2016 lawsuit over the similarities between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” Additionally, 65.7 percent of people also knew of other circumstances where Led Zeppelin’s integrity as songwriters was attacked via charges of alleged plagiarism. However, only 22.6 percent of the 137 fans surveyed reported that any allegations against the band changed their perception of Led Zeppelin as individual people, and 88.4 percent reported that these allegations did not change the way they enjoyed the band’s music.

Finally, when people think about Led Zeppelin today, they may picture a band with three remaining members, all approximately 70 years old. They may think about the band’s extensive discography of nine studio albums, four live albums, and nine compilation box set releases. For fans who were lucky enough to see Zeppelin perform live, the mention of the group may conjure memories of a spectacular live performance. Essentially, many classic rock fans view Led Zeppelin as pioneers of the genre and rock ‘n’ roll gods. However, when the rock band released their debut album, Led Zeppelin, they were not quite the experienced musicians that fans know today.

When the band’s Atlantic Records debut was released, the members of Zeppelin were 25 (Page), 23 (Jones), and 20 (Bonham and Plant) years old. While youth is no excuse for intentional plagiarism, many fans might attribute Zeppelin’s blurred mix of inspiration, remix, and plagiarism to their young age and potential. Additionally, it could be argued that the group did not anticipate the commercial success of Led Zeppelin, which has gone platinum eight times in the United States, twice in the United Kingdom, and received numerous accolades, since it was their first LP release. Therefore, the group may have knowingly allowed themselves to be frugal when using “inspired” riffs, melodies, and lyrics from other artists because they could not predict that their work would be heard by millions, including the artists they “borrowed” content from. Just as beginner musicians or DJs may borrow or sample music they are inspired by, so might have Zeppelin lifted elements from other artists in order to get their foot in through the (out) door.

These four factors are just a few of many ways that Zeppelin fans might choose to dismiss allegations against the band and continue to assign Led Zeppelin a positive situated ethos. However, it is important to note that each individual listener engages with music differently; some listeners may boycott Zeppelin entirely due to plagiarism allegations, some may condemn the band’s four members but continue to appreciate their music, and others may not care or even be aware about the constant attacks on the band’s ethos. Zeppelin’s ethos as rock legends may be hard to shake, even by shady songwriting practices, but band’s clean copyright record, the timing of the 2016 “Stairway to Heaven” lawsuit, the audience’s choice to separate the artist from their music, and the mindset concerning a first major label release have allowed the rock ‘n’ roll band to live on through radio airwaves and as a household name.

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