A Los Angeles courtroom probably wasn't the heaven Led Zeppelin's lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page were thinking of when they wrote the iconic rock ballad "Stairway to Heaven."
But last Friday, US District Court Judge Gary Klausner decided the British band's "Stairway to Heaven" has enough similarities to the previously composed song "Taurus" by the lesser-known band Spirit to merit a jury trial for copyright infringement. The trial is set for May 10, 2016.
"While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure," Klausner wrote in his decision, obtained by the Washington Post.
"For example, the descending bass line in both Taurus and Stairway to Heaven appears at the beginning of both songs, arguably the most recognizable and important segments … Additionally, the descending bass line is played at the same pitch, repeated twice, and separated by a short bridge in both songs."
Michael Skidmore, a trustee of Spirit's late lead guitarist Randy Wolfe, who composed "Taurus," filed the lawsuit in 2014, arguing Page and Plant stole the riff while touring with Spirit in the late 1960s.
This isn't the first time Led Zeppelin has been called out for cribbing from other artists. In fact, as Kirby Ferguson explains in the documentary Everything Is a Remix, the band was accused of it time and time again:
- The beginning and end of Led Zeppelin's "Bring It on Home" sounds eerily similar to American blues singer Willie Dixon's song "Bring It on Home."
- "Lemon Song" has some of the same lyrics as Chicago blues singer Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor."
- "Black Mountainside" has a similar melody to Scottish folk singer Bert Jansch's "Black Waterside."
- Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" is an uncredited cover of American singer Jake Holmes's "Dazed and Confused."
Holmes filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin in 2010 for "Dazed and Confused" 40 years after the record was released. The suit was dropped two years later, likely in a settlement, according to records reported by NPR.
Even so, drawing the line between rip-offs and inspiration in music has been an interesting challenge for legal systems. We checked in with Ferguson to get a little background on the Led Zeppelin case and copyright infringement in the creative world. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tara Golshan: Set the scene from when Led Zeppelin was seemingly cribbing from all of these different artist.
Kirby Ferguson: I think it was known pretty early on everybody was drinking from the same well. All the British blues bands were doing loads of covers of the kinds of folks that Zeppelin were into. Blues guys especially. They were all listening to that music and doing covers of it.
They were sued in '85 by Willie Dixon, or the estate of Willie Dixon, for "Whole Lotta Love," so super famous big song, and they ultimately gave the co-writing credit to Willie Dixon. Then in the '90s they lost another case to Howlin' Wolf, another blues guy.
I'm trying to establish that it's happened before with Led Zeppelin. They have lost a couple cases before and have given some writing credit to the original guys. And there is one that was super recent with a guy named Jake Holmes — his name is showing up in song credits more, so there seems to be some kind of arrangement.
There is a history of this happening with the band. There is a trend that we know. Even if one thinks this case is potentially not that convincing — and I think it is convincing — there is a longer trend.
TG: Was there a precedent for this?
KF: It was a tradition in blues-rock to do what they were doing, but they would usually give song writing credit, just 100 percent, to whoever wrote it. To me, they are kind of like an early version of hip-hop, of sampling, because they were taking snippets of other people's music and putting it into their own music, but then they didn't transform those bits a lot.
They were quite recognizable, like that opening bit of "Stairway" is quite recognizable as being a bit of "Taurus." So what was unusual about them was that they were using bits and pieces of blues-rock and not giving credit, and not being transformative with what they took into something that was no longer recognizable.
TG: Where is the line drawn between rip-off and inspiration?
KF: Unfortunately there is no answer to that. Some people would say you have to look at the sheet music. I am not a musician, but even I would say that isn't decisive because it depends how you are performing those notes or how you are phrasing those notes and what the rhythm is. There are all these details on top of the actual notes. It is definitely a gray area.
There is a judge who referred to it at one point, I believe, and said it was like pornography: You can't define it but you know it when you see it.
It's a weird system that we have. We go to a jury to decide what these things are rather than a body with musical expertise — we just go to regular folks that make the call.