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Did Led Zeppelin steal 'Stairway to Heaven'?

16th September 1970:  British rock band Led Zeppelin collect their geode awards after being voted top British group in the Melody Maker Pop Poll in London. From left to right, they are Jimmy Page, Robert Plant (who also won the Best British Singer award), and John Bonham.  (Photo by Roger Jackson/Central Press/Getty Images)
16th September 1970: British rock band Led Zeppelin collect their geode awards after being voted top British group in the Melody Maker Pop Poll in London. From left to right, they are Jimmy Page, Robert Plant (who also won the Best British Singer award), and John Bonham. (Photo by Roger Jackson/Central Press/Getty Images)
Roger Jackson/Getty Images

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By many accounts, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is the greatest song of the classic rock era. It may be the most popular rock song ever.

Although it was never released as a single, the album on which it appeared, the band’s untitled 4th album from 1971, has sold more than 37 million copies worldwide. And it’s the most requested song of all time on FM rock stations, where it’s been played millions and millions of times.

But now — 45 years after its release — the song’s writers, guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant, are being sued for copyright infringement. The trial is scheduled to begin next week here in Los Angeles. 

Ben Sisario, a staff writer for the New York Times, joined The Frame to talk about this case and the murky world of music copyright.

Interview Highlights:

Who filed the lawsuit and what is their claim?

The lawsuit was filed by a trustee who manages the songs of Randy Wolfe. He was known as Randy California. He was a member of the band Spirit which was a 60s psychedelic rock band. Randy Wolfe died in 1997 and he never filed any lawsuits about it although he did complain that Led Zeppelin had stolen his song. The song is called "Taurus" and it was released in 1968. It's a short instrumental piece which sounds a lot like the beginning of "Stairway To Heaven," with the acoustic guitar. They're both in the same key of A minor and they have a very similar pattern.

When you listen to that song by Spirit, do you hear any of "Stairway to Heaven?"

I do. They are similar songs and there's no doubt about it. There's a similar chord progression that we're hearing there. It's not identical but they're played in a similar way with arpeggiated chords on the guitar. There's no doubt that they are similar, but copyright infringement is not just about, do these songs sound a little bit alike... The laws says that there has to be a substantial similarity is the idea. The lawyers in this case who are representing Spirit are going to have to prove that these two songs are close enough to be copies and that Led Zeppelin knew about the song in question. 

In April, a U.S. District Court judge denied Led Zeppelin's request for summary judgment, saying: "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 the core structure." Can you elaborate on what the judge means when he says the “similarities transcend the core structure?”

One of the key issues in this case and a lot of other cases like it — "Blurred Lines" was another one — is the question of: Are the things that are allegedly copied generic enough that nobody can really copyright them? If you sit down and play a C major chord on the piano and then somebody else records a song using a C major chord, they can't sue you because those are generic universal things in music.

Led Zeppelin was basically arguing that both songs have the descending pattern of the chromatic scale, but you can't copyright that. There are numerous other songs use that too. The song "Chim Chim Che-ree" from Mary Poppins has a similar structure. There are pieces from classical compositions from Bach's time that also use similar chord structures. Jimmy Page has sometimes described the writing of this part of the song as being a poor man's version of a Bach piece. So what the judge is saying is, yeah, you're right. This element is pretty common in music, but the way you've done it is unique enough that it's not totally generic. And on that basis, he said, I'm going to allow Spirit to challenge you in court.

We should point out that the band Spirit toured with Led Zeppelin in 1969 and that they definitely would have heard "Taurus" before recording "Stairway to Heaven." Could Page and Plant claim something like they were always involved with some dressing room debauchery and so never heard the opening act, Spirit, perform?

I don't know if they've used that particular one, but the plaintiff here has tried to bring up their drug use as a form of impeachment to say that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are not reliable witnesses because of all the drugs they did in the past.

Are Jimmy Page and Robert Plant expected to be at the trial?

Yes, they're expected to be at the trial and they will probably testify. It will be fascinating to see what they have to say. They've given depositions in the case and there have been other filings where they've essentially said, yes our paths crossed a few times very early on in our career. It's been documented that there are certain music festivals where both Spirit and Led Zeppelin played, but they claimed that they were not watching them and they didn't know them. However, there are interviews from the time where Jimmy Page said things like, yeah I like Spirit, I think they're really cool. The hurdle for Spirit proving that Led Zeppelin knew about Spirit and that they might have heard their music — I think they're going to cross that hurdle pretty easily. I think that anybody listening to these two songs is going to hear the similarity. The question really is, is the thing that is alleged to be a copy here — is it unique enough to be copied or is it something that's kind of generic and is just music?

There have been many music copyright lawsuits over the years. One of the more recent and most famous is the case from 2014 when Marvin Gaye’s heirs successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, claiming that the song “Blurred Lines” borrowed heavily from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Is there something about that verdict that makes copyright infringement easier to prove now?

I don't think it makes copyright infringement easier to prove, but it has become a very controversial verdict in the music industry. That case is being appealed. The controversy is really about this idea of a generic feel of a song. If you put the two songs together, "Blurred Lines" and the Marvin Gaye song "Got to Give It Up," they have a similar vibe and feel. But the notes on the page — if you were to play the two songs on the piano in the most stripped down way — they're not identical, they are different. The "Blurred Lines" decision is currently set at $5 million in damages, which is a huge amount of money in these cases. People in the music business say that this has given a lot of leverage to potential plaintiffs to say, you stole my song because your song feels like my song

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