Photo: Consequence of Sound
Photo: Led Zeppelin
The recent case between Led Zeppelin and the estate of the late Spirit Songwriter, Randy Wolfe, threatened to change rock and roll history. The Prosecution claimed the Led Zeppelin's most famous song; “Stairway to Heaven” copied their opening riff from the Spirit instrumental,” Taurus”. This case challenged the rock and roll giants and would have marred the reputation of the band had the jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff. However, after about five hours of deliberation, the jury ruled that Led Zeppelin had not copied the riff, therefore not infringing any copyright law. Let’s have a look why the jury ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin.
First we will examine the music itself. You can have a listen for yourself on YouTube. Here’s a link to “Stairway to Heaven” and here’s one to Spirit’s “Taurus”. The parts in question are the famous opening, which the plaintiff claims is ripped off of a guitar riff at about forty seconds into “Taurus”. Listen to how eerily similar they sound. It’s because they are. Both are in the same key, A minor, and both are a series of arpeggios based on the A minor chord at the fifth fret, with a descending melody in the base. In English: the two songs have similar notes, a similar melody, and are both played in a similar style. To most they appear nearly identical. Spirit certainly has grounds to believe they have a strong case.
The problem with the prosecution’s case lies is the riff’s simplicity. There is a reason that Stairway to Heaven has a reputation as a riff that every beginner guitarist learns. If it were any simpler it would be a scale. To say that it was lifted is very difficult to prove, because the idea behind the intro is such a common one. The only reason the suit holds water is because they are in the same key. And if you listen further than the first four chords, you will hear the tunes diverge, as Taurus remains on the A minor chord while “Stairway to Heaven” continues to a D and an F chord. In addition to this Stairway adds a melody to the top that ascends the scale. This is just enough variation to the tune that they can be easily differentiated, and, in addition to its simplicity, allows Stairway to hold up its originality in court.
That is only the musical basis for the decision, in reality personality played a large part in swaying the jury as well. The case served as a rare reunification of the famous band, and the lead singer, Robert Plant, and guitarist Jimmy Page, were both present for the entirety of the trial. Their presence and personality helped to sway the trial in favor of their cause. In addition, the prosecution attorney, Francis Malofiy, made several eccentric moves that did not win him any favor with the jury. Status and likability were definitely on the side of Led Zeppelin in this case.
Lastly, the case is outdated. The songs were both released more than 45 years ago, and the lawsuit is hardly relevant anymore, as both bands have broken up and are no longer producing records nor performing. This was just the last straw on the camel’s back as it faced an uphill battle to take down one of the biggest rock bands of all time. The camel simply could not face the task.
Some may see the case as a loss for the smaller artists, while others will see it as a win against the ever strict copyright laws. Either way Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven will maintain its place in Rock and Roll’s hall of fame.