Led Zeppelin famously made rock music that was heavier, louder and more lucrative. The band did this while pillaging Norse mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien (among others) for its lyrics. Musically, it borrowed from a long line of musicians that included folk songwriters, fellow rock bands well as first generation bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. To be fair, band sometimes did cite a source for a songwriting credit.
However, the question of original province for “Stairway to Heaven” is going back to court. The guitar figure that opens this all-time classic song sounds similar to a minor instrumental song “Taurus,” which was recorded by the ‘60s-era San Francisco band Spirit and written by band guitarist Randy Wolfe, who is deceased. A federal court jury in Los Angeles ruled in 2016 that the band did not steal the famous riff.
Revisiting the case in 2018
Now a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that jurors were erroneously instructed by the lower court on copyright law central to the case. In the previous trial, jurors could only listen to a formal expert’s version of “Taurus” played from sheet music (which is protected under the Copyright Act of 1909), not the original version of “Taurus” that Page would have heard. The new trial will enable jurors to hear the original version by Spirit.
This change follows case of Marvin Gaye’s estate against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for the 2013 song “Blurred Lines,” which the songwriters admitted took broad inspiration from the song due to ubiquitous access to Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” The defense paid $5.3 million and half of future royalties.
The plaintiff’s argument
To the naked ear, the songs by Spirit and Led Zeppelin sound similar. But one of the plaintiff’s expert witness claimed that he found five areas of significant similarity. These include “a descending chord progression, notes lasting the same duration and a series of arpeggios and similar pairs of notes.”
During testimony at the previous trial by songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Page said the chords to the song were actually close to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” because the progression is a traditional one going back centuries.
Copyright laws are changing
The new court date regarding “Stairway to Heaven” is the next step in regards to copyright. Most major artists now vet their songs, looking for copyright infringement issues they might not be aware of. If there is an issue, it is advisable to consult with an attorney to explore options for resolving the matter through an arrangement or litigation.