Who owns that stairway to heaven?

Love those rock & roll lawsuits! Here's a fun one: Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are being sued for copyright infringement for the opening guitar line on their overwrought classic, "Stairway to Heaven."

The plaintiff is the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California) of the band Spirit. The estate alleges that Page and Plant—as composers of the song—stole the guitar intro from a Spirit song, "Taurus," that California wrote.

Zeppelin as a band has reportedly made over a half billion dollars on "Stairway to Heaven" and Page and Plant have probably made even more from songwriter royalties, so what's at stake here isn't chump change.

Listening to the opening of the two songs back to back, I'd have to say that Page's guitar intro probably qualifies as a lift. (Listen here.) Page even plays it in the same key (A minor) that Spirit used. Zeppelin was likely exposed to the song when the band opened for Spirit in the late 60s. And the fact that Zeppelin has a history of losing plagiarism lawsuits won't help the case—assuming it makes it to trial without a settlement.

But wait! Hold the presses! There may be an earlier claim on the guitar line. Davey Graham, a Brit folk guitarist, had a similar sounding part on his 1959 song, "Cry Me a River." (Check it out here.) The music has a shuffle feel (which is unlike either "Taurus" or "Stairway") but the guitar line bears similarity to "Stairway." And because Page was a Davey Graham fan in Britain in the 60s, it's likely he was exposed to this song as well.

How this will affect the current lawsuit is anybody's guess. But, in an ironic twist, it's possible Graham's estate could sue both other parties.

Business lessons?

1. Rock IS a business—and a legitimate one to pursue. It's not like the old days when parents would tell their kids, "We support you in doing ANYTHING you want—well, as long as you don't try to make a living playing music and wind up in the gutter." (My folks told me this, almost word for word.) Some parents now actively encourage their kids to become musicians. Or music business attorneys.

2. Respect intellectual property. Don't rip people off, especially your colleagues. Despite what you read these days, IP matters.

Ok, you say, maybe it was a subliminal act on Page's part. Maybe that chord sequence was rattling around in his auditory cortex from hearing Davey Graham and/or Randy California, and he didn't realize where it came from. Fine. It happens. And Page comes across as an honorable dude. But once the similarities are discovered, the right thing to do (in my mind) is to not contest the suit. Admit that the guitar line could have been borrowed unintentionally from either or both sources. All parties could be accommodated in a negotiated settlement for future royalties.

My (unsolicited) advice: take the high road—you know, the stairway to heaven.


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12 Comments

  1. I've had this conversation mostly with folks who know nothing about music except how to turn on a radio. You fall into a different category, so your comments will probably get more of a listen from me.

    The Spirit riff and Stairway sound similar, sure. But Page changed it. (I haven't listened to Graham's thing yet. Maybe I don't want to.)

    Yes, Zep lifted stuff, as blues musicians are wont to do. Or were, back before everyone sued everyone for everything. (How 'bout Bo Diddley's estate start suing everyone who riffed him off? <—[joke])

    Page took an emotionally confused melody and clarified it. In the process, he took something forgettable and made it unforgettable.

    In my mind, he changed the riff enough to qualify it as something new.

    Should they offer California and Graham a settlement? Depends on how greedy those estates get.

    It's just not as musically clear cut as George's use of the melody of He's So Fine.

    And one question I keep asking myself: did California sue when he first heard Stairway, or when he realized how rich it could make him? Surely the man heard the song somewhere. Was the suit filed in 1972? Why is all this happening more than 40 years after the fact?

    I believe in fairness. A lot. There are just too many questions, and I'm terrified of a musical question being decided by lawyers and judges.

    1. The background story to the copyright claim does raise questions, which makes it all the more interesting to me. (I love a good mystery.) Randy California said years later that because Spirit had become friends with Zeppelin during their "tour" he didn't care if "Taurus" was used as the basis for "Stairway." He also said the Zeppelin guys were often in the front row listening when they played "Taurus" so of course they heard it. (But Page said he never heard "Taurus.") But California — who drowned in Hawaii in 1997 (rescuing his son) — had apparently been vacillating about taking Zeppelin to court — annoyed that they never publicly acknowledged being influenced by "Taurus" — and had even consulted an attorney. After his death his estate picked up on it and eventually launched the suit.

      The "Stairway" intro is of course a vast improvement over the "Taurus" intro (though "emotionally confused" is a description I might use about Zeppelin's lyrics) but there are similarities for the first four bars. It's a judgment call.

      Imagine the jury selection questions trying to weed out Zeppelin fans: Have you ever banged your head on a chair while listening to rock music?

      After listening to the riffs played side by side by this guitar player on YouTube, I think I'm getting emotionally confused: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCEg9gMJakU

      Q: Do you have a hard time making up your mind?
      Me: Yes and no, but then again I could be wrong.

      Yep, the case against George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" was the most obvious one I can think of.

  2. they all sound roughly similar for four bars then diverge. don't know enough about copyright laws to say that's plagiarism but if it's about to go to a jury trial it won't matter soon what anyone says on the blogosphere.

  3. Legally, if the music is modified by at least 25%, there's no case. Glad I'm not the one who determines if it is or not.

    And yes, there seems to be a problem with filing a claim 40 years after the song becomes a hit.

    1. Actually I'd love to be on that jury. And you can't beat the $5 a day (if that's what they still pay) in a tight economy.

  4. I should also acknowledge a slight bias I have towards Spirit. One of my bands opened for them in LA back in the Pleistocene Epoch and I thought they were pretty good. "Nature's Way" is my favorite of their songs.

  5. I also love Spirit and "Nature's Way" (which they recorded a few times and always with a really good re-arrangement. What saddens me about this is that Randy knew of the lift for years and years and never saw good to litigate. Why should his estate do this? I'm sure there's a lawyer arguing about a Duty-To-Maximise-The-Assets etc but it's hardly in keeping with the spirit (no pun intended) Randy lived.

    1. Randy had been on the record saying both: he didn't mind that Zeppelin used his guitar part; and he was hurt that they never acknowledged it or thanked him. So he was conflicted about it, but immediately before his death he was thinking of finally taking legal action, which his estate followed through on.

      Totally believable to me, because it matches the actions of other musicians I've known who felt their work was "borrowed" without credit given (legal or otherwise). Yet they were ambivalent about getting into the legal muck of it all. Very common for singers and songwriters, who tend to be a conflict-averse bunch.

      A classic case is "Killing Me Softly," sung by Roberta Flack, which was credited to songwriters Gimbel and Fox. Yet according to Lori Lieberman, who first recorded the song, the lyrics to the tune originated in a poem she wrote about seeing Don McLean in concert, which her boyfriend at the time, Norman Gimbel, fashioned a lyric around and Charles Fox wrote the music for. When I spoke to Lori a few years she was still adamant that she should have received some of the songwriting credit. Now if she were to eventually sue I'm sure people would be second guessing her motives for it. But sometimes it takes time for a perceived injustice to motivate a sensitive soul to take legal action.

      1. I heard a great story about The Eagles' song, "Lyin' Eyes." I believe it was Henley and Frey at The Troubador with Jackson Browne and a bunch of (at the time) aspiring and on-the-rise guys from the scene. As they drank and talked, they saw a lady go past with a man who was not her acknowledged boyfriend. She saw that they'd seen her and one of the guys at the table said, "Take a look at those lying eyes..." Drinks went flying and chairs went all over the place as some of California's best songwriters scrambled for pens and napkins to note down an idea for a song...

        1. Great image. Probably true. The Troubadour bar was my home on Monday nights, when they had the "hoots" (open mics). Frey and JD Souther were always in the bar. And prior to the release of his first album, Jackson almost always did a three-song set there. I heard "Jamaica," "Song for Adam," and "These Days" every week. There was so much talent there folks took it for granted. "Oh, it's Jackson again. Let's go back in the bar."

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