Exclusive: Old Folk Song Proves That ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Is In the Public Domain [LISTEN]…

Another buried old song has emerged in the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ copyright infringement lawsuit.

Back in April, a Digital Music News reader unearthed a classical composition from the early 1600s that sounded nearly identical to ‘Stairway to Heaven.’  That piece, written by pre-baroque composer Giovanni Battista Granata, raised the possibility that the famous progression from ‘Stairway’ is actually in the public domain and not subject to any copyright whatsoever.

Expert attorneys debated that point, with one noting that the real question under US law isn’t whether the piece itself is public domain, but whether Zeppelin copied the version created by Spirit in their song, ‘Taurus’.  But other versions of the progression have also emerged, including a 1950s version by Davey Graham that also sounds exactly like the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ the world knows.

In that light, Zeppelin’s attorneys have understandably argued that the ‘Stairway’ guitar riff is as old as time itself, dating back hundreds of years and passed between generations of artists.  Now, there’s more evidence to support that assertion, and possibly end this case for good.   In expert testimony earlier today, musicologist Lawrence Ferrara unearthed an old folk song called ‘To Catch a Shad” that is also in the public domain.

Take a listen:

The folk song, performed by the Modern Folk Quartet with a recording released in 1963, is the only version we’ve been able to find online.  This may be as obscure as it gets, with less than 1,000 listens on Spotify and fewer than 7,000 listens on YouTube at the time of this writing.  But that matters little, and the court had trouble telling the tunes apart.

All of that suggests that even more versions are out there, a point that Ferrara emphasized.  “That progression, that movement, has been around for 300 years, dating back to the 17th century,” Ferrara told the court.  “In the 20th century, before ‘Taurus’, a large number of popular musicians, artists and composers also used it.”


11 Responses

  1. onestepbeyond

    Presumably if the riff is in the public domain – Coke, or Ford or whoever could use that same riff in an advert without fear of infringement??

  2. Anonymous

    Paul. Stairway to Heaven is not in the public domain nor will this trial prove that it is in the public domain. You must realize this. Your headline is the worst kind of click bait and insults the intelligence of your readers.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      It’s the progression we’re talking about. That’s been around since the early 1600s. It’s like playing an Eb minor chord with resolving 7th. It’s been done, it’s public domain (or whatever you choose to call it).

  3. lol

    ah american copyright law.

    what a broken mess.
    which will just be made worse if the recording industry is any indication.

  4. DavidB

    “Expert attorneys debated that point, with one noting that the real question under US law isn’t whether the piece itself is public domain, but whether Zeppelin copied the version first created by Spirit in their song, ‘Taurus’ ”

    I’m no expert on US copyright law, but in UK law a precondition for claiming copyright protection is that the work protected must be ‘original’. If it isn’t, then merely to show that someone else copied the work would not win the case. On the face of it, US law is similar, as it states that ‘copyright protection subsists in original works of authorship…’ (USA Title 17, s 102). Note the word ‘original’.

    • DavidB

      …sorry, I meant Title 17 of USC (United States Code), the consolidated copyright statute.

      • Paul Resnikoff

        I’m loosely relaying legal discussions I’ve had, so forgive the lack of judicial rigor here. Frankly, this case seems ridiculous on so many levels. The case has proven that this progression dates back hundreds of years and is pretty unoriginal. Seems like a play to get more cash, in a patent troll sort of way.

  5. Ron Zabrocki

    No one can copyright a chord progression. Plain and simple. Otherwise every doo wop song would be stolen.(for one example) The Spirit/Zep lawsuit is nonsense and should never have gotten to court.

    • R Steven Thompson

      Similarly, no one can copyright a recipe.

  6. Big Mike

    Holy smoke, Jimmy Page must be some kind of guitar playing god if he can turn that laaaame folk riff in Stairway to Heaven!