The “Stairway to Heaven” Lawsuit: How Permanent a Victory?

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Led Zeppelin’s successful defense of “Stairway to Heaven” against an accusation of copyright infringement over the song “Taurus” is a victory for creativity — but how permanent a victory?

The opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” share, at best, a passing similarity to a brief chord progression in “Taurus,” written by singer Randy Wolfe, who performed with the band Spirit. (Compare “Taurus” at the 45 second mark to the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven.”)

Had a jury found that Zeppelin plagiarized “Taurus,” songwriters would have another good reason reason to second-guess themselves as they create new music (and I’m not referring to lyric writing). The next David Bowie might not write the next “Starman” for fear of sounding too much like someone else’s work (in fact, Bowie based the chorus for “Starman” on “Somewhere over the Rainbow”). But the victory was by no means a slam dunk. Over the years, a number of other high-profile plagiarism cases similar to this one have gone against defendants. For instance:

  • In 2015, the family of Marvin Gaye successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for infringing upon Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” when Thicke and Williams wrote “Blurred Lines.” Gaye’s family was awarded $7.4 million (a judge reduced the award to $5.3 million; Thicke and Williams are appealing).
  • Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood of the Hollies successfully sued Radiohead over similarities between Radiohead’s “Creep” and the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.” As a result, Hammond and Hazlewood now share royalties and songwriting credits for “Creep.”
  • In the 1980s, Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. for plagiarism because Lewis felt that the melody for Parker’s 1984 hit “Ghostbusters” was too similar to Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug.” The two parties settled out of court.
  • In 1976, a judge determined that George Harrison had committed “subconscious plagiarism” in writing his 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord,” whose melody is similar to that of the 1962 song “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Harrison was liable for nearly $600,000.
  • In the 1960s, the Kinks successfully sued the Doors over similarities between the sound of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” and the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.” Consequently, the Kinks and Doors share songwriting credit for “Hello, I Love You” in the United Kingdom.

Why did Led Zeppelin prevail with “Stairway” when other musicians in similar situations did not? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, which speaks to the subjective nature of these cases. From what I can tell, the following two factors seem to influence the outcome of these cases:

  • How distinctive is the music in question? This issue doomed “My Sweet Lord.” The melody for “He’s So Fine,” while forming only a small part of the song, is so distinctive that even casual listeners could recognize its similarity to “My Sweet Lord.” And the judge decided that being distinctive means being original.
  • How integral is the music to the entire song? In the case of the Hollies suing Radiohead, at issue was the overall similarity between the two songs’ compositions as opposed to a single melody that acted as a smoking gun, if you will. The same holds true for “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” The recurring backbeat and chorus that underpin both songs were deemed to be too similar.

On the other hand, copyright infringement cases due not need to prove that the defendant knowingly stole the music to find the defendant liable, as the George Harrison “unconscious plagiarism” ruling shows.

Of course, all kinds of intangibles can come into play. For instance, did the appearance of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin the courtroom wow the defendants with a bit of celebrity firepower? Robert Plant in particular was said to be especially charming and engaging as a witness.

In the case of “Stairway,” the jury ruled that “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” are not similar enough to justify the plaintiff’s argument that Led Zeppelin was guilty of plagiarism. I don’t know what was going through the minds of the juries — but I suspect the two issues of how distinctive and integral the music informed their decision. To wit:

  • The disputed portion of “Stairway to Heaven,” while sounding similar to “Taurus,” consists of only a few fleeting seconds — so the passage was not integral to the overall feel of the seven-minute plus “Stairway.”
  • Both the plaintiff and the defendant produced musicologists who argued about the distinctive nature of the disputed music. Team Led Zeppelin argued that the musical progressions date back to the 1600s, thus attacking how distinctive the riff in “Taurus” and “Stairway” really are. Team Spirit produced technical evidence arguing that “Taurus” uses a distinctive structure.

Ultimately, the arguments of Team Spirit around those two issues did not convince the jury.

In the context of the “Stairway” lawsuit, it will be interesting to see how the copyright infringement lawsuit against Ed Sheeran’s song “Photograph” plays out, as well as one against Justin Bieber for his song “Sorry.” Sheeran has been sued for $20 million by songwriters Martin Harrington and Tom Leonard. Harrington and Leonard claim “Photograph” has a “striking similarity” to the song “Amazing” which they wrote for a onetime winner of The X Factor, Matt Cardle.

Harrington and Leonard assert that the chorus of Sheeran’s “Photograph” and Cardle’s “Amazing” share 39 identical notes, and that the two songs utilize similar overall structures, melodic rhythms, and harmonies.

Given the murky history of song plagiarism lawsuits and subjective nature of their outcomes, the long-term impact of Led Zeppelin’s successful defense remains to be seen. Meanwhile, songwriters would do well to heed the advice of producer and blogger Bobby Owsinski:

“[S]ongwriters beware, there’s nothing new under the sun given the 12 note scale that western musicians use, so you’re probably copying a previous song without even knowing it. And today, that’s enough to get you sued.”

Related:

Consequences of Sound, “10 Famous Cases of Musical Plagiarism,” by Matt Melis and Michael Roffman, May 29, 2016.

The Daily Beast, “If Led Zeppelin Goes Down, We All Burn,” by Aram Sinnreich, June 17, 2016.

The New Yorker, “The Unoriginal Originality of Led Zeppelin,” by Alex Ross, April 14, 2016.

Time, “11 Suspiciously Sound-Alike Songs,” by Melissa Locker, August 21, 2013.

WatchMojo.com, “The Top 10 Rip-off Songs,” May 17, 2014.

Augmented Reality at Cedar Point: First Impressions

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Virtual reality is grabbing the headlines right now, but augmented reality has a bigger near-term future. My recent experience with a new AR-based game at Cedar Point Amusement Park illustrates how AR can make an already excellent customer experience better.

The Augmented Reality Boom

By 2020, augmented reality is expected to be a $120 billion market, versus $30 billion for virtual reality, according to Manatt Digital Media. And it’s easy to see why businesses ranging from retail stores to theme parks are creating AR experiences. VR usually requires headsets to transport users into make-believe worlds and demands more of a person’s time and attention. On the other hand, AR, while being less immersive than VR, integrates virtual content into real-world settings (e.g., projecting an interactive map on your table top at home).

In June, Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, launched an experience that shows how AR can use immersive gaming to take a fun day at a theme park to another level. As my buddy John Hensler and I discovered when we tried out the new Battle for Cedar Point game June 16, AR in a theme park works best when it enhances a natural part of your visit, such as turning a queue line into an opportunity to score an achievement.

About Cedar Point

Cedar Point bills itself as the roller coaster capital of the world and for good reason. The 365-acre park (nearly four times the size of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom) boasts 18 roller coasters, including the recently opened Valravn, billed as the “tallest, fastest, and longest dive coaster in the world.” John and I have been to the park several times with family and friends, and we keep going back because the rides are flat-out terrifyingly fun. But when you’re not losing your stomach on a thrill ride, you spend a lot of time doing things that happen in all theme parks, such as walking around and waiting in lines (unless you have the budget for a Fast Lane pass). With Battle for Cedar Point, the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company has turned downtime and park navigating into game time.

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Why Voice Search Is the Future of the On-Demand Economy

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Mobile gave rise to the on-demand economy. But voice search will fuel its future.

Google demonstrated how voice will form the foundation of an on-demand search ecosystem when Google announced the Google Assistant intelligent search tool at the company’s I/O event in May. Then Apple, at its Worldwide Developers Conference June 13, showcased a smarter and more ubiquitous Siri voice-activated intelligent agent for using our voices to do everything from order an Uber ride to make restaurant reservations. Both developments underscore how voice is rapidly shaping the way we research and buy in the moment.

On-Demand Everywhere

In a June 7 blog post, I discussed how mobile triggered an uptake in on-demand living by making it easier for consumers to use their phones to quickly find things to buy and places to visit. Google calls these moments of rapid decision making “micro-moments.” Uber sensed the popularity of micro-moments by launching its now wildly popular service through which we use mobile devices to get rides when we want them. Amid Uber’s ascendance, businesses ranging from Amazon to Walmart have embraced various models of on-demand commerce.

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How Facebook and Google Are Bringing Virtual Reality to the Masses

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When a hot startup launches a virtual reality product, influencers and investors notice. When Facebook and Google bet on virtual reality, the whole world notices. Recently these two market makers unveiled their VR visions and plans at their own bellwether events, Facebook F8 and Google I/O. Both their plans are important because Facebook and Google possess the resources and reach to make VR more mainstream to everyday consumers faster than any startup ever could. Both their visions are intriguing. I believe Google’s is more compelling and far-reaching.

Facebook’s Vision

At F8, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg articulated a simple, clear vision for VR: social VR, or connecting two or more people in the virtual world. Social VR is intuitively easy to grasp even if you don’t know how we’ll get there. Facebook users (wearing Facebook’s Oculus Rift headsets, naturally) can explore virtual worlds together, ranging from virtual Ping-Pong matches to virtual excursions to Bali, which makes posting information on each other’s wall seem quaint by comparison.

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During his F8 keynote, Zuckerberg said, “VR has the potential to be the most social platform because you have the ability to be right there with another person.” But Facebook doesn’t just talk vision — the world’s largest social network shows it. Accordingly, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, wearing an Oculus Rift headset and using controllers, demonstrated a shared VR experience with Michael Booth of Facebook’s Social VR team, who was 30 miles away and also using Oculus Rift. Together, they visited London through VR — or at least their avatars did, projected on a giant screen. The F8 attendees oohed and aahed as their floating avatars checked out Piccadilly Circus and took a selfie together in front of Big Ben.

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The moment was a brilliant bit of theater that instantly injected excitement into the Facebook brand and gave us a glimpse at what social VR can look like. Afterward, Lance Ulanof of Mashable spoke for many pundits watching when he wrote, “Bravo, Facebook. Social VR is now officially something I want in Facebook. You made me want it, damn you.”

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This Is the World Uber Has Made

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Uber has become so pervasive that the company is changing our vocabulary.

In everyday settings, we use Uber as a verb (as in “I’ll Uber to the ball game tonight”). In business settings, we use the term “uberization” or “uberfication” to refer to companies creating on-demand services such as home delivery of groceries or healthcare on demand. The Uberization of our vocabulary is a perfect example of how technology enables a change in consumer behavior. Thanks especially to the uptake of smartphones and apps, consumers are making purchasing decisions faster, and we’re expecting businesses to respond on our terms. The Uberization of our own consumer behaviors explains why Amazon has been embracing the use of automated drones to deliver goods faster and why brick-and-mortar businesses ranging from Nordstrom to Walmart are partnering with ride-sharing services to offer home delivery as well.

But is an on-demand world a happier one?

Walmart on Demand

On June 2, Walmart’s Chief Operating Officer Michael Bender announced that the $482 billion brand is piloting a grocery delivery program in select markets. Customers using the service will place grocery orders online and designate a delivery window. Walmart personnel will prepare their orders and may have a ride service such as Deliv, Lyft, or Uber deliver the items to the customer’s door. Customers will pay a delivery fee directly to Walmart as part of their online order rather than fuss with paying a driver along with the grocery order. If the process works as Walmart intends, customers will be able to order what they want online once, and all the prep and delivery will occur behind the scenes. As noted on Walmart’s blog, Sam’s Club has been piloting a similar program in Miami since March.

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