‘Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.’
And the greatest, it seems, manage to get away with it. Or at least, that was what Led Zeppelin front men Robert Plant and Jimmy Page thought until, last Friday, they were summoned to court for copyright infringement on 1971 hit ‘Stairway to Heaven’. The similarity between the song’s opening riff and the instrumental ‘Taurus’, released four years earlier by psychedelic band Spirit, was flagged up in 2014 by a trustee for the band’s now-dead guitarist Randy Wolfe and has since been making rifts in the music community.
Now, the band has seen its fair share of copyright lawsuits filed against them, many successfully and some rightfully. Many, however, have been largely unfounded, and can probably be put down to a mixture of financial opportunism and jealousy: when Led Zeppelin have taken from a song, their own version has usually been distinctive enough not to have to credit its influence. It’s also a question of genre. The blues has always been in conversation with itself: Chuck Berry stole from people, people stole from Chuck Berry, but at the end of the day, no one could do Chuck Berry like Chuck Berry did, and so that was that.
The ‘Stairway To Heaven’ lawsuit, however, is something quite different. It is no longer a case of taking words or tonality from traditional songs before then altering them. It is almost note-for-note theft. Led Zeppelin and Spirit toured together in the late 60s and, despite any claims that Zeppelin might make that the riff was developed without any knowledge of ‘Taurus’, Page is very likely to have come across it, not least because the album it came from reached #31 in the Billboards. Technical arguments stating that Spirit’s riff uses a musical technique too basic for ‘Stairway’ to be plagiarising it also don’t hold much water, given how close the riffs are both in terms of tone, tempo and positioning on the guitar neck.
A Led Zeppelin fan through and through, I will be the first to say that what they then go on to do with the riff is quite unique. The quasi-Elizabethan first section, the epic guitar solo, the transition into the hard rock finale that, as with so many great successes, caused an initial scandal in the media for not being ‘the done thing’; there’s a reason all guitar learners flock to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ as soon as they’ve had enough of ‘Wonderwall’. But, as far as this court case is concerned, Page and Plant need to face the music. The opening is Spirit’s, and credit should be given accordingly.