Today (June 23rd), a California federal jury officially rejected claims that Led Zeppelin stole the opening riff to their hit song ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The accusation was that the band blatantly lifted the critical guitar progression from a song called ‘Taurus,’ originally composed and performed by the rock band Spirit.
The long, drawn-out case capitulated with a six-day copyright trial in Los Angeles, followed by a rapid jury deliberation and decision. Despite Spirit attorney Francis Malofiy arguing vociferously that plagiarism had occurred, and putting Led Zeppelin into stumbling stammers on the stand, the case itself was mostly predatory and ridiculous. Ultimately, the presiding judge was swayed by Zeppelin’s attorneys, who fired back with evidence that the chord progression dates back as far as 400 years.
The case quickly began falling apart when evidence was introduced to support the assertion that the guitar riff is actually in the public domain. As the case gained steam, the industry began to view Spirit’s claim with extreme skepticism, largely due to the apparent unoriginality of Zeppelin’s legendary guitar riff.
That raised a key question: was this really an original, copyrightable guitar progression, or a riff that has been used numerous times dating back centuries?
Experts felt that this was a timeworn progression, and not an original melody, chord or rhythmic combination. Musicologist Lawrence Ferrara took to the stand and unearthed an old folk song called ‘To Catch a Shad” that included the exact riff in question.
Then there was the strong and striking comparison to Mary Poppins’ ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’. With more and more songs popping up with the same riff included, even from from hundreds of years ago, the Malofiy-driven case started to deteriorate.
If Zeppelin had lost, the band would have been forced to pay the Randy Wolfe estate a massive penalty, while losing a large portion of ongoing royalties. Even worse, a loss would have provoked a string of copycat lawsuits, based on similarly specious grounds. Now, courts are likely to be more wary of ‘trolling’ style contests, and could slap them down harshly while referencing the Zeppelin precedent.
On the win, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant released a statement which says…
“We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and confirming what we have known for 45 years. We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”
Warner Music Group also released a statement which says…
“At Warner Music Group, supporting our artists and protecting their creative freedom is paramount. We are pleased that the jury found in favor of Led Zeppelin, re-affirming the true origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands in history, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are peerless songwriters who created many of rock’s most influential and enduring songs.”
(Image by Led Zeppelin’s Cadillac, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic, cc by 2.0)