Article by Thom Jennings

It has been said, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but when millions of dollars are at stake an imitation can also be costly. In the case of one of rock music’s iconic masterpieces, “Stairway to Heaven,” a court will decide if Led Zeppelin lifted essential elements of “Stairway” from a lesser-known song by the band Spirit.

The song in question is “Taurus,” and there is a solid case that the song inspired “Stairway”-including the fact that Led Zeppelin and Spirit shared the same bill numerous times- it brings up an interesting issue, what is the distinction between inspiration and copyright infringement?

The internet is abuzz with Led Zep bashers claiming the band has a history of ripping off songs from blues artists, but even though I don’t consider myself a huge Zeppelin fan, the criticism seems to ignore the fact that most blues songs have the same basic form. In the case of “Stairway,” the section in “Taurus” that is in question is the iconic strummed intro that inspired so many guitarists it became the inspiration for the “No Stairway” joke in Wayne’s World.

In essence, the intro is a modified A chord that is played as an arpeggio. Whether or not Jimmy Page drew inspiration from “Taurus,” the intro is a very small part of the song, and Page could have clearly modified it in a way that would make it less similar to “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” would still have all of the other elements including the poetic lyrics.

When it comes to copyright laws and music compositions, one cannot copyright titles, chord progressions, broad concepts and rhythmic patterns. The question that the court will likely have to resolve is whether an arpeggio of a chord is subject to copyright.

That will depend on whether the opening of “Stairway” is considered a riff or part of the song’s melody because a melody is subject to copyright law. Men at Work found that out when they lost a lawsuit in Australia that charged them for lifting the intro of “Down Under” from an Australian folk song entitled “Kookaburra.” The similarity between “Kookaburra” and “Down Under” is similar to the likenesses between “Stairway” and “Taurus,” and like the impending lawsuit against Led Zeppelin, many years had passed before the copyright infringement case was filed.

There are two other interesting elements to the “Stairway” case, the first being the massive amount of money involved. Since Led Zeppelin never released “Stairway to Heaven” as a single, it generated over $500 million in revenue. Led Zeppelin is getting ready to release deluxe remastered versions of their entire catalogue.

The other element has to do with the legacy of Spirit’s guitarist Randy California. Spirit was one of many bands that signed lousy record deals, and even though they had hit records like “I Got a Line on You” and “Nature’s Way.” Randy California was living on Ramen Noodles in a rented apartment when he drowned in 1997. The lawsuit against Led Zeppelin is not just seeking monetary damages; they want Randy California to get a writing credit for the song.

Whatever the outcome, “Stairway to Heaven’s” status as the song that dominated Album Oriented Rock stations and became required learning for budding guitarists. “Taurus” will never be able to make either of those claims, but it may just make one young lawyer a very rich man.




Spirit v. Led Zeppelin - " Is There A Little Spirit in Stairway to Heaven?"
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