‘Stairway to Heaven’: The Biggest Rip-Off In History?

Has Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' Song Been Swiped From a Small Band?

Well… that’s now for the jury to decide.

Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page are now facing one of the most serious copyright trials in history, with a jury set to deliberate.  And the question is whether their long-winded rock classic, “Stairway to Heaven,” was actually ripped off from another band.

A U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles has now allowed the case from Michael Skidmore, a trustee of Randy Wolfe’s estate, to move the case forward based on considerable similarities.

Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, was the main songwriter for an American Rock group called Spirit.  Spirit was a Los Angeles-based group best known for their song, ‘I Got A Line On You’.  In their day, the group had success with several charting albums (i.e., they were a known group).

The case claims that pieces of ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ regarded as one of the world’s greatest rock songs, was lifted note-for-note from the opening of a Spirit song titled ‘Taurus’ (among other grafts).  After looking at the case, the judge deemed it strong enough to move forward.

What’s interesting about this case is that Spirit had appeared at various music festivals with Led Zeppelin in the 1960s.  The bands also performed on the same stage as supporting acts throughout the same period that Spirit performed ‘Taurus’.   Another interesting tidbit is that ‘Taurus’ was released just three years prior to ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

The case suggests that Jimmy Page may have been inspired after listening to Spirit’s song at these music festivals, as ‘Taurus’ was performed on stage at three festivals in which both bands were present.  On that point, Jimmy Page reportedly stated in the case that he had never seen Spirit perform.

Regardless, the beginning of both songs do bear undeniable ‘similarities’.  The Judge on the case stated “while it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure.”

Here’s what the jury will be comparing.

 

(Image by Happybeatle2, Creative Commons, Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International,cc by-sa 4.0)

18 Responses

  1. Name2

    Zeppelin used to do extended covers of Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage” in their early sets. All anyone has to do is bring one live bootleg from that time to court, and it’s probably close to all over for the “Spirit? Never heard of ’em.” story.

    Oh, wait! Bootlegging is illegal and hurts musicians!

    Sorry, Spirit! LOL!

    Reply
  2. Vail, CO

    Every single black artist should be suing Led Zeppelin. This is just another ugly tentacle of racism in the US and abroad.

    Reply
    • For Love of Music

      First off, know your history. They were sued and settled out of court with Willie Dixon and I believe other Blues musicians. Their early albums were reflective of the times, with bands like the Rolling Stones, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, John Mahal and the Blues Breakers, et. al, building their sounds on the blues. This was a did wonders for the blues musicians, like B.B. King and others who were relatively obscure in the early sixties and then were suddenly drawing large crowds thanks to this new interest in the blues.

      Having been a blues musician for a long time I have to defend the various revivalist of the blues including the more recent players like SRV. They are great in their own right and you will rarely hear a musician talk about racism because we all share a passion that transcends race.

      Further, the blues has been about stealing from others since the beginning and the same can be said for every type of music from classical to Hip Hop (ya think). Loving the art or style of another culture, which is usually stolen amongst artists within that culture and using it to create something of your own doesn’t make you a racist. Quite the opposite it shows your appreciation for people of a different ethnicity and culture.

      I think you should perhaps take a little more time considering your position before throwing around accusation of racism. The quickness with which people toss around such accusations is far more destructive and divisive than I think they realize. This not what the world needs, it only adds to the false narrative of hatred about people that are actually very loving and appreciative. No, we really need people that are constructive and uniting not accusatory. Take that for what it is worth.

      Reply
  3. Anonymous

    It looks like Jimmy Page had access to the song, and the opening for both songs is certainly similar enough. I think Randy California’s estate should get a piece of the publishing and historical royalties out of it. That said, I bet it was unintentional, and doesn’t really take all that much away from what Led Zeppelin achieved with this song.

    Reply
    • Paul Resnikoff
      Paul Resnikoff

      Expressed intent to infringe is only one consideration in cases like this.

      btw, is there a statute of limitations on something like this? any lawyers out there?

      Reply
      • Name2

        I’m not a lawyer but even the CBS Evening News knew last night that because of the law, this can only be for royalties going forward.

        A-Doy.

        Reply
    • james

      this is complete bs, those chord progressions are pretty common but stairway to heaven’s arpeggio is very different from the the taurus. it looks like another attempt to grab some attention by suing famous artists. now i have to patent oxygen.

      Reply
  4. Versus

    These recordings are really not very close. It’s just arpeggios of a chord progression that comprises “common convention that abounds in the music industry”, in the judge’s own words. Anyone noodling around with a piano or guitar and a modicum of Western musical knowledge could stumble upon something very similar.

    Reply
    • Paul Lanning

      Agree. The chords are the same, but if re-using a chord progression constituted plagiarism, there wouldn’t be enough lawyers and judges to try all the cases tat would pop up in a single day!

      Reply
    • J. L. Wilson

      I totally agree….there is no law suit here whatsoever. This is similar to the Marvin Gaye lawsuit. Led Zeppelin only used as was mentioned before, a common progression of chords found in many many popular songs but after the initial first few chords they resolve their progression differently. This is about money.

      Reply
    • For Love of Music

      “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” T.S Elliot

      Yeah, the progression is very common and its really only the first five arpeggios which share about 75% or less of the actual notes. What makes them sound very similar is the voicing on an acoustic guitar which could be seen as a direct infringement of intellectual property.

      I think that it is far more noticeable because it is the beginning part. Had it been in the middle of a section the similarities wouldn’t have stood out as much.

      That said, I don’t doubt that Page took “inspiration” or “stole” that part. Even if you believe he did there remains the question as to whether it was protected by Intellectual Property Law and the law has far less to do with justice or truth than with parsing words.

      Now if you really want to get into something interesting its the basis for Intellectual Property, something that has no tangible existence. There are philosophers and legal scholars that argue convincingly for its necessity, its ridiculousness, its destructive power and its great benefits. Personally I am on the side of protecting intellectual property as long as one can innovate upon it to create something new. What is new? Well, back to parsing words on that one.

      Reply
  5. Paul Resnikoff
    Paul Resnikoff

    I think a lot of this will boil down to the lawyers. If I were defending against this, I’d first check to see how many other songs have extremely similar guitar riffs like that, around that era. I think you’d find more than a few, and expand the timeframe and it your comparative set would be much larger.

    Then, you can get into some interesting music theory. These aren’t groundbreaking chord structures or arrangements. The amount of notes and the rhythms associated can be constructed pretty easily. Maybe it was copied, maybe not, but simple riffs and arrangements are often duplicated by accident.

    Reply
  6. Rick Shaw

    I’m not sure about this. I think I need to visit Guitar Center to hear a few more people really butcher it.

    Reply
  7. rotter

    The Marvin Gaye case seemed a lot closer than this one. With that song, there was a feel AND a melody, and even some phrasing similarities, though again, I doubt I would have ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, particularly because Blurred Lines doesn’t begin to approach the quality of Marvin Gaye, but more critically, because it’s not the same lyrics at all. There’s just some similar grunting over a similar beat. I people start busting for similar beats, then its all over.

    That judge was high if he made the call himself to go forward. Stairway to Heaven was a fully formed anthem (not long-winded) that had as much to do with the greatness of its personnel as the song itself. The fact that the least challenging part of the song forms the basis of the case shows how idiotic the case is in the first place. RIpoffs should be limited to flat-out reusings of written lyrics and major passages of songs, not four chords in a row. It is an embarassment to the US court system that these legends have to deal with this in their old age. Knowing the way the US loves to punish cutting-edge celebrities, however, and Zeppelin were a bit dangerous despite their pop status, I wouldn’t be surprised if this were personal vendetta.

    Reply

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