Bombshell Emerges In ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Plagiarism Case (LISTEN)

Earlier this week, a federal judge allowed a copyright infringement suit to proceed against Led Zeppelin, specifically over the seminal song, ‘Stairway to Heaven’.  The plaintiff is Michael Skidmore, a trustee of the Randy Wolfe estate, who ties back to the band Spirit.

Spirit has long felt that their track, ‘Taurus,’ was lifted by Zeppelin for ‘Stairway,’ without proper credit or payment.  Now, a jury is going to decide if Zeppelin lifted a critical guitar sequence from that track, based expert forensic musicology and analysis of the two songs.

These are the two songs that will be compared in the coming days and weeks, with a decision potentially crushing Led Zeppelin with massive infringement penalties.

But what if Zeppelin ripped that track from someone else?  It now looks like Spirit’s claim could be trumped by an earlier work from the late 50s, as performed by Davey Graham.  The song, ‘Cry Me a River,’ appeared in BBC broadcast in 1959 (with no ties to Justin Timberlake).

Take a look, and play particular attention to passages appearing at 0:19 and 1:02.

Whether this performance and interpretation was widely known is another question, though Jimmy Page has cited Davey Graham as an influence.  Indeed, Graham is regarded as a highly influential and genre-pushing artist, and oftentimes credited with driving a resurgence in folk in 1960s Britain.  As an instrumentalist, his guitar-plucking style has often been imitated, especially by artists of the 60s and 70s.

This isn’t exactly a ‘discovery,’ as aficionados of the era have debated the possible plagiarism for decades.  But in the context of this lawsuit, it could dramatically alter the outcome if properly entered into evidence and heard by the jury.  It also raises a gaggle of separate possibilities, including a potential lawsuit from the Graham estate (the folk guitarist died in 2008 at the age of 68).

Then there’s the separate matter of whether Spirit may have stolen Graham’s work prior to any involvement from Zeppelin, intentionally or otherwise.  Because if copyright infringement can be found by Spirit, it automatically nullifies the Zeppelin suit.

21 Responses

  1. steven corn

    This song could simply prove that the lick was commonplace and not protected. It seems to be an insignificant part of “Cry Me A River”. Just one lick among many. I’m sure Jimmy’s lawyers are scouring the web for even older recordings.

  2. Mountain Man

    You cannot copyright a chord progression. As a guitar player, there many common chord shapes, picking patterns and chord progressions. They are easy to stumble upon without ever hearing them in the context of another artists song. The bottom line here is that many songs have the same chords & chord progressions. The two samples have similar chords in sections, but in no way are they the components and melody that make “Stairway to heaven” the song that it is. This is just lawyers and estates try to cash grab. None of this would be happening if “Stairway” was on the b-side of a forgotten bands record.

    • J. L. Wilson

      I totally agree with Mr. Mountain Man….well said sir.

    • Mario E. Sprouse

      Absolutely agree! I’ve done hundreds of comparisons over the last 25 years. Aside from straight out samples, I’ve advised against litigation in many cases because I was able to find a corresponding passage in music as far back as the 17th century. The chord progressions of Pachelbel’s Canon and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” come to mind.

    • Holly

      I agree. As a member of ASCAP, I’ve always understood that copyright of a song pertained only to melody and lyrics. All music is derivative, and we’d be in lawsuits forever if every guitar riff or chord progression could be copyrighted.

      • Patrick Lockwood

        There are exceptions, where a riff is unique and serves as a significant identifier to the song, such as the bass line to Day Tripper. But the STH minor chord with a descending bass, that’s been done millions of times. THere are some riffs within the chord progression that could be copyrighted, but the Spirit song as only the chord progression n common, and it’s an old progession.

    • yer mudda

      ditto mountain man, it is the lyrical melody over the song that is haunted, and made stairway popular, and its arrangement. this song if so great would have been popular of its own right, yet it wasnt. duh for the estate money grabbers, and kharma will return where it is due for offending those who comfort us all on the radio trying to steal their cash.
      stairway rocks, and taurus’ spirit song sounds more like pass the hanky. Nobody listens to pass the hanky unless theyre into drowning and wallowing. 🙂

  3. Remi Swierczek

    The era of profitable and brilliant remixes is in front off us.
    The minute we switch to Discovery Moment Monetization folks will collect different versions of beloved tunes like postage stamp or coffee mugs!

    Major cash to original creators and talented remixer.
    Just convert over 100,000 Radio stations to music store.

    Just $1,000,000 per station will bring $100B music industry.
    Some NY, LA or London stations might do that in a week!

  4. DavidB

    Yes, Davey Graham could play arpeggios based on a sequence of descending semitones. So could Jimmy Page. So could any halfway-competent guitarist or pianist. There must be numerous examples from jazz and classical music – less so from rock or pop, which doesn’t go in for chromaticism, but there are exceptions, e.g. here:
    If this was the only basis for the claim of plagiarism it would be hopeless, which I think the judge has recognised in the Stairway to Heaven case.

    • yer mudda

      der and agreed, 8 notes to work with limits our patching them together, and nobody can own a chord. this spirit song is not even rock, its a joke.
      zero melody and also depressing to listen to.

  5. Tim Wood

    The Spirit riff is measurably different; Page goes up on the 5th & 7th notes, where California goes down.

    Part of the problem with making legit money is il-legit characters try to take it away from you; this seems to happen a lot in music.

  6. Gaetano

    Honestly as a guitar player I can tell you where that riff came from. It’s originally the Spanish song “Besame Mucho” and it’s a very common chord progression in Latin music. I don’t think it’s fair to copyright a chord progression!

  7. Brian Dengler

    Listen to the :Sonata di Chittarra, e Violino, con il suo Basso Continuo” by Giovanni Battista Granata (1620 – 1687), about 32 seconds into the piece. Sounds familiar? This was written in the mid-17th century.

  8. Jim Knodle

    The i-i/7-i/b7-i/6-i/b6 progression is one of the most oft-used in Western music- all the way back to the early Baroque; the contrary-motion i-9-9-b3 line was used by The Young Rascals in “How Can I Be Sure”…

  9. ynys

    Huh so Led Zeppelin are denying using other artists work in Stairway to Heaven
    Look at how Led Zeppelin have treated this amateur musician who did a cover of their song Carouselambra, forcing the sound to be turned off

    Guess it shows their true colors

  10. Fair Man

    Ultimately reputation is all, and whatever way it goes, perhaps the reputation of Led Zeppelin will shine a little less brightly.