Led Zeppelin’s day in court

Today, Led Zeppelin were taken to court.  At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars generated by a guitar riff.  Not the revenues from their entire collection of songs.  Not even from one song.  Just a snippet of a song … a guitar riff … the one that many aspiring guitar neophytes try to learn even before they bother learning scales or basic chord structure, and feel like a budding rock star once they can master it.  At least that’s how it was back when I was a teenager.

I guarantee that when you hear the first four notes … which are nothing more elaborate than an A minor chord played one string at a time … you’ll know exactly which song I’m talking about…

Stairway To Heaven.

I’m not going to get into any kind of side-by-side comparison of the two songs (the other one in this case is Taurus, written by the group Spirit).  Those are easily dug up by a quick Google / YouTube search if you really want that.  Instead I want to use this contentious law-suit as an analogy for another copyright infringement case which will almost certainly get much less media coverage but which has a much bigger impact on society.

We’ve seen this kind of thing many times before.

Readers may remember a similar case only three years ago. Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams produced their hugely successful Blurred Lines (with controversial video) which some thought was loosely reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up (some readers may not know me or this case well enough to know that “loosely reminiscent” is a gross understatement.)  The courts at that time agreed with the litigants … Marvin Gaye’s children … and awarded them $7.4 million.

Or yet another case, equally high-profile, between George Harrison (former guitarist with The Beatles) and the Chiffons (another 4-member group, this one all-female, who were at their peak in the 60s).  They claimed his song My Sweet Lord was a clear rip-off of their hit He’s So Fine.  The judge agreed, but ruled that Harrison probably did it unintentionally: that the song might have come to him in his sleep.  Just the same, the girls got $1.5 million (quite a bit of money back in the mid-70s, long before copyright infringement became big business in the legal profession, ahead of defending mobsters and taking down international pharmaceutical giants).

And many others.  Hundreds in fact.  From Devin Copeland versus Justin Bieber just last year, to as far back as 1844 when it was W. J. Wetmore’s The Cot Beneath the Hill versus W. J. Wetmore’s The Cot Beneath the Hill.  No, that was not a sloppy copy/paste error on my part: it was essentially “Wetmore vs Wetmore,” and Wetmore won … netting six hundred and twenty five bucks in the process.  Check it out for yourself here, where you can find this and a hundred other such cases.

In many of these cases, especially the more recent ones, the lawyers for both sides get into detailed analyses of how the songs are clearly so different and yet clearly so identical.  Powerpoint presentations showing the musical notes, chord structures, and progressions, complete with references to musical terms spoken in Latin or Italian by musical academics, or references to neuronal pathways described by neuroscientists as they explain how the music is perceived by the human brain.  This article is a good example, including excerpts of the actual dialogue between the two sides in the Harrison v. Chiffons case.  Well worth reading.

And yet, when you listen to the songs, it really seems obvious that one derives from the other.  It’s just self-evident. It reminds me of a judge having to define pornography back in 1964.  At stake was not just the colorful magazines available from underneath the counter at the local variety story, but also medical textbooks and many Biblical passages: try to create a definition that doesn’t define the latter as obscene.  When asked about his opinion on Jacobellis v. Ohio, in which a contentious film was being censored, Justice Stewart Potter, member of the United States Supreme Court, said it was hard to define, but “I know it when I see  it.”  (Decades later, he reflected on that example of exquisitely precise lexical dissection and said he regretted “that’s going to be on my tombstone. When I remember all of the other solid words I’ve written, I regret a little bit that, if I’ll be remembered at all, I’ll be remembered for that particular phrase.”)

But enough of these analogies. Why am I focusing so much on copyright infringement?  Because of an entirely different case of plagiarism being defended in the court of public opinion, one that likely won’t result in any cash settlements but will likely result in people giving up on their faith … the case of descent of humans, apes and Neanderthals from a common ancestor.

I’d heard about common descent many decades ago, but dismissed it at the time.  I was taught to do so.  It offended my personal beliefs and for that reason alone couldn’t be right.

But then I looked into the evidence for it.  We’ve learned quite a bit about our DNA.  It’s incredibly similar to chimp DNA, and almost identical to that of our Neanderthal cousins. The case for copyright infringement is absolutely overwhelmingly convincing.  I’ve  blogged previously at length about this, and have a 2nd book coming out in a few months on the subject, so I won’t repeat it in detail here. Looking at the similarities between our genes and chromosomes … without wearing sunglasses designed to block out the harsh glare of reality and cut off at the knees any interpretation that would jeopardize my faith system … one can’t help but conclude that we’re related genetically to chimps, apes, orangutans, Neanderthals and Denisovans.  In fact, we’re even related to dogs, fish, mushrooms and amoeba.

During that open-minded search for truth, I also became aware of the many defense arguments raised against this case of plagiarism.  Just like with the lawsuits over plagiarized songs, I hear detailed arguments that appeal to subtle differences in this gene or that chromosome.  Big words spoken in science-ese which the average person can’t spell, let alone know their basic definition or understand the mechanisms behind them.  Charts and diagrams with lots of CGATs and percentages and DNA helices, all of which are argued in both directions. Details that just overwhelm non-experts.

If you get past the rhetoric and distraction and interpret the data at face value, without being influenced by the ramifications of your decision, then it’s hard not to call it plagiarism.  “I know it when I see it.

But don’t be cowed into thinking that concluding we’re genetically related to the chimps means there is no God.  Contrary to what Fundamentalists on the one hand and anti-theists on the other will say, it isn’t an either-or decision: not science or faith … not Darwinism or design.  The data don’t say anything at all about the existence of God.  They just call into question whether the ancient Hebrew version of things might be a bit off on a few details. You might find other reasons to reject the Divine, but don’t do it just because we’ve found a different explanation for how humans came to be on this planet.  God is not simply an explanation for origins … a God-of-the-gaps only ever gets smaller and less relevant.  The Bible wasn’t intended to explain the physical details, the logistics, or the scientific mechanisms of how we humans came to be. Neither can Darwinism possibly resonate with our souls and give us insight into meaning (“why am I here?”; “what is good?”).  Both views can be complementary.

And also don’t think that you need to blind yourself to the facts just to protect belief.  Willfully ignoring truths, or wishing them into oblivion, isn’t honest, brave, up-to-date, or liberated.

Instead, look for a way to put the two together.

Over the next few blogs, I intend to tease apart a few more of the matters that are forced to the surface when a theist (formerly Fundamentalist) finds Darwinism to be unavoidable, or even fully acceptable.  This is in lead-up to the release of book number two, hopefully in September, which does the same in a lot more detail.  In the mean time, if you have any particular things you want to hear about on this subject, send them on by leaving a comment below and I’ll let you know what I think.


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One thought on “Led Zeppelin’s day in court

  1. Luke, thanks for the well developed and unthreatening appeal for objectivity around discourse in the field of origins studies. BTW, if you ever quit your day job you shouldn’t have a problem nailing down a partnership in copyright law 🙂


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