Exclusive: ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Is Actually In the Public Domain

Who really wrote 'Stairway to Heaven'?

Copyright infringement case opened.  Copyright infringement case closed.

Last week, a US federal judge allowed a major copyright infringement lawsuit to proceed against Led Zeppelin, specifically over allegations that the group stole their seminal classic, ‘Stairway to Heaven’.  That lawsuit was filed by the estate of Randy California, whose 60s-era band, Spirit, claims that Zeppelin ripped off the critical guitar riff from their song, ‘Taurus’.

A victory by Spirit would potentially place Zeppelin on the hook for tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties, depending on the decision of a now-assembled jury.

Since that point, the music industry has started scrutinizing Spirit’s claim with extreme skepticism, exactly because of the apparent unoriginality of Zeppelin’s legendary guitar riff.  And the key question is this: is this really an original, copyrightable guitar progression, or a riff that has been used numerous times dating back centuries?

On Friday, investigations by DMN’s Noah Itman led to a track from 60s folk guitarist Davey Graham from 1959, with uncanny similarity to the core ‘Stairway to Heaven’ song.  But this one will probably end this case for good: over the weekend, DMN commenter Brian Dengler pointed to a baroque composition for strings written in the 17th century that sounds exactly like Zeppelin’s hit track (see comment number 11 here).

All of which demonstrates an extremely inconvenient truth for Spirit: ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is actually in the public domain.

Listen to the following composition, ‘Sonata di Chittarra, e Violino, con il suo Basso Continuo’ as originally written by 1600s composer Giovanni Battista Granata, specifically the melody that emerges around the 0:32 mark.

 

Any questions?

45 Responses

    • YrLic

      With all due respect, you are a fool.
      A guitar intro is not a song, and you are disingenuous in any claim otherwise. The essence of a song consists of the melody and the lyric – ie., that which a person remembers when they hum in the shower. Stop blowing your horn.

      Reply
      • Me2

        Hey Cyrli, Don’t know where you get all that from. Just pointing out that it’s a popular progression. OF COURSE copyright is with it’s the lyrics and the melody. Hope this clarifies.

        As for calling me a fool and accusing me of blowing my horn, with all due respect, go fuck yourself.

        Reply
  1. Michaelantonio Luckette

    Although there are similarities, I am not quite sure that a few bars of similitude would constitute public domain status.

    Reply
    • Of course

      Use of a popular chord progression would certainly not put “Stairway” into public domain status. There’s that small matter of the melody and lyrics.

      Reply
      • Anonymous

        This is why the Spirit lawsuit is so ridiculous- you can’t copyright a chord progression, just words and melody.

        Reply
        • Buttpimples

          It is possible to copyight a chord progression—if it is an original work. And, the chords to a song are protected as part of the whole feel of the song….e.g..Gaye v. Thicke.

          Admitted that, generally, chords by themselves will not be original and cannot be protected by US copyright law.

          Reply
          • porcodio

            Chords progressions are not copyrightable. Stop.
            The intro it’s not a chord progression only there is a melody line.

      • Anonymous

        “Use of a popular chord progression would certainly not put “Stairway” into public domain status”

        Of course not, this is about melodic material…

        Reply
    • Brian Dengler

      Granata’s entire piece is in the public domain (not the performance, just the composition). Using a few bars by 20th century groups doesn’t render a piece in or out of the public domain. The point is the progression is similar to the progressions used in Taurus and Stairway to Heaven. Since that “lick” has been around for 300 years, it’s hard to claim it’s “original.” Copyright only protects original works of expressions.

      Reply
      • Brian Dengler

        One correction: Granata’s piece is in the public domain, but it does not put “Stairway to Heaven” in the public domain simply because it includes a guitar progression that has been around for 300 years. There’s a lot more to Stairway to Heaven than just an opening lick (melody, lyrics, etc.) that would constitute original expression protected by copyright. My only point is that if there’s a copyright claim based solely on a guitar progression that has been around for 300 years — and it’s the only basis for a claim — it’s hard to argue that the little lick is “original” to deserve copyright protection.

        Reply
    • Jim B

      Really, this has as much in common with Stairway as Stairway does with Taurus. There’s a little bit of similarity, which does prove the opening progression of Stairway is somewhat common, certainly Page could have heard this and been inspired. It’s a common progression played as arpeggios.

      Reply
      • Al Morse

        Jim B and Brian I do agree with both. Just remenber Zep and Spirit gigged together and Page asked California to show him this chord progression especifically. That said, I absolutely agree that 3 (and only 3) chords of the sequence could constitute any kind of plagiarism at all.

        Reply
  2. Buttpimples

    I would not say it is in the “public domain.” Instead, it is not an original work of authorship that is protectable. Should be filtered out by the judge on the front end.

    I like being picky.

    Reply
    • Buttpimples

      “Public domain” implies that it once was protected by copyright law, and the passage of time cause the protection to lapse.

      If it is not an original work, it was never protected.

      Reply
  3. Musicservices4less

    Buckley:
    You don’t not discuss or comment on the function of the power of the record industry Goliath’s and their ability to structure the playing field against a behemith like Google. Please don’t refer to youtube as they are definitely not a separate company from Google. Google is one big fucking non-elected, 1984 type monster in the making or already made. The major music companies mostly define the playing field for independent artists and record labels. By the very nature of the definition of “independent” they do not even have a chance against the “behemoth”. since Google without a doubt is causing THE monetary problem for the music industry, the music Goliath’s are the only hope of changing Google stupid ad based calculations to a flat rate. That’s right, everything on Google needs to be paid on a flat rate. Period. Fuck advertising. Advertising should not be linked directly to how anyone gets paid. It’s just stupid for content owners.

    Reply
  4. Weighing in

    The song is not in the public domain. If Spirit got to a a PD song first and made a material derivation and THAT derivative was copied there is grounds for infringement.

    This piece however is only partially similar to Stairway’ full progression. It goes in a wholly different direction.

    The only way Stairway would be PD is if Zeppelin (and Randy California) lifted the entire song, making a new arrangement of the thing. Instead. Just to go a little deeper, an entirely different piece is composed.

    If THAT different piece (even though it may have started off similarly to the Baroque ritornello work) was made into an original source by Randy CA then is Stairway uses the same WHOLE progression, form and underpinning we are back to Zeppo infringing.

    IMHO… I’m not an attorney, but I did study this under some very good tutelage.

    Reply
    • MR. MELODY TM

      If Stairway is Public Domain then no-one has to pay 50% Authorship Rights. Fact is it was stolen from Spirit’s Copyrighted original work that yes, was based on a piece of music from the 1700’s, that LEGALLY speaking had no copyright protection. RETRIAL.

      Reply
  5. Anonymous

    That lick’s early provenance is interesting, if not entirely surprising, considering the volume of compositions written over the centuries. However, “original,” in the copyright sense, does not mean new or never-done-before. Identical works that were “independently created” receive copyright protection. The reason Spirit (or Davey Graham) represent more serious issues is that, due to their familiarity to Jimmy Page, an independent creation explanation won’t likely hold water. That said, I think all of the works stand on their own and we are richer as a society to have all of them.

    Reply
  6. Derek

    Loved listening to the rest of the baroque music. Just left it running. Beautiful.

    🙂

    Reply
  7. Paul Resnikoff
    Paul Resnikoff

    Let me clarify one thing on this piece, because I can see how the title could be misconstrued. The guitar progression that is a critical, central component of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is in the public domain, because it was actually written circa 1630.

    You can’t sue someone for using a guitar progression that was written in 1630, because that, by definition, is public domain.

    Reply
    • MR. MELODY TM

      So go ahead and rip it off another original song? Fact is People often do bringback ppublic Domain music within anew context and these songs are COPYRIGHT Protected.

      Reply
  8. asdf

    How the hell does a few seconds of a common chord progression at the intro of “Stairway to Heaven” make the whole song public domain?

    Reply
  9. wordbabey

    I really dig this site, and its ‘give-no-f*&ks’ attitude, but sometimes it’s a bit ridiculous.

    The title is misleading, period. I came here because I thought some judge somewhere actually said the Taurus song was in the public domain (and I’m sure some others did too). And I would have been very surprised if they did (and am very happy they did not).

    Kudos to your reader for finding the Baroque piece, it’s really beautiful, as Derek has said, but no one in this opinion piece, or in the comments, makes a compelling legal case for public domain. I would have liked to see it, actually. Especially against ‘Weighing In’s’ thoughtful analysis.

    What’s funny is, I wouldn’t go to a legal blog to find the great insider music stuff I find on here; so why would you create some legal opinion piece without actually knowing the law on copyrights? Or maybe you do, and were just sloppy in this opinion piece. I don’t know.

    But the title is misleading.

    Reply
  10. Doug

    The music industry isn’t helping its self.
    Its all just a money grab.
    Its hard to write a song now a days that you can’t liken it to something else.

    Reply
    • Brian

      Now that is so ooo true. And sad. The idea that music creations from our period won’t ever be let go of their copyrights is also very sad. The musicians are dead and they do not need protection anymore. The recording companies suck wind and brass. Copyrights should be let go after 20 years or the death of the artist.

      Reply
    • Doug

      I just wanted to add that one song can sometimes inspire another song. At one time you could borrow, Build on and make better. Small wonder that the music now just doesn’t have that Pop.

      Reply
    • Boudewijn

      indeed, I replied my version of your reply below before I read your comment… or do we have a copywr…

      Reply
  11. Ben Buhl

    If there’s a law against being strongly influenced by a very specific chord progression and improving it by a factor of about 10,000…then Led Zeppelin is definitely guilty!

    Reply
  12. lordpet

    Randy California didn’t invent the guitar figure used in Taurus or the somewhat similar one used in STH. They both derive from music that’s hundreds of years old. Case closed.

    Reply
    • MR. MELODY TM

      NOT. The other stuff wasn’t Copyrighted and certainly not in the way of this new usage.

      Reply
  13. dan

    you know….playing the entire piece as you did here….could certainly appear on the surface to be infringement…..yanno? like….maybe….think a bit before you post?????
    If all you wanted to do was use some of the piece for pedagogical reasons as a fair-use exemption, there was no reason to keep the whole thing. you could have just excerpted a bit before the 32 second mark and a bit after…long enough for the listener to know what it was but not the whole piece….and this ‘attribution’ thing….no I think you don’t get to play intellectual property expert here.

    Reply
  14. Boudewijn

    uhm sorry but this is a basso continuo interpretation by the (baroque) guitar player in the manner of StH. NOT the way it’s written down by the composer Granata. Basso continuo means he wrote down chord symbols albeit a chord progression. This doesn’t prove anything other than the chord progression similarities. As much as similarities with the Taurus thing.

    Reply
  15. Wheat Williams

    Mr. Resnikoff, you are an ignoramus who knows nothing about music composition, the music business or copyright law. Your article is laughably off-base. Your conclusion is ridiculous. “Stairway” is a copyrighted song, on the basis of that which all copyrights are claimed: its melody and its lyrics. The opening guitar lick and the chord progression are parts of the original recorded version of the song that are not copyrightable, but that does not mean that the song itself has no copyright. If you or I were to make a cover version that had no guitar and did not use that chord progression at all, but still had all or part of “Stairway”‘s lyrics and melody with different chords underneath, we would have to pay mechanical licensing fees to the publishing company that owns “Stairway” because it is a copyrighted song. It is copyrighted for the length of the life of the songwriters plus 70 years.

    Reply

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