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 0:35 mark.