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Borrowing a Stairway to Heaven: did Led Zeppelin rip off a riff?

More than 40 years after the release of Stairway to Heaven, English rock band Led Zeppelin are facing allegations that its iconic guitar riff was stolen from Taurus, a song released in 1968 by the American…

The allegations come a long time after Zeppelin and Spirit toured together in 1969. Musikhalle Hamburg, März 1973: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page/ Photo: Heinrich Klaffs

More than 40 years after the release of Stairway to Heaven, English rock band Led Zeppelin are facing allegations that its iconic guitar riff was stolen from Taurus, a song released in 1968 by the American rock band Spirit.

The two riffs are clearly similar: they share a four-bar instrumental guitar passage with similar harmony, tempo and stylistic features. Businessweek has created a short game where you can test your skill at telling the two apart.

But is this enough for Spirit to demand a share of the credit – and the royalties?

Breaking down the chord progression

Stairway does not directly quote melodic lines from Taurus, but it does give an overall impression of similarity. Under US law, the question is whether Zeppelin’s riff is “substantially similar” to Spirit’s, which was written by the late Randy California.

There are clearly similarities between the two instrumental passages, but there are also major differences.

Neither the bass nor treble melodies are the same. The strongest melodic line in Taurus is built on a descending chromatic scale played in a conventional bass rhythm, similar to the “lament bass” from Purcell’s When I am Laid in Earth. This melody is heard in the lower guitar voice in Stairway.

The ‘lament bass’ is a common musical pattern Hyacinth/ Wikipedia Commons

The strongest similarities between the two songs are the key, tempo, “arpeggiated” (playing each note of the chord one at a time) guitar style and chord progression. But on their own, these features are not particularly original.

The chord progression is similar but not identical, particularly in the final cadence in each four-bar phrase. Stairway’s important “hook” is arguably in this last bar.

The chord progression in Stairway is actually nearly identical to Davy Graham’s 1959 song Cry Me A River. Graham also used a fingerpicked guitar style and a chromatic descending bass line. Many guitarists find it natural to fingerpick in this style due to the physical construction of the instrument.

Without more specific or extensive use of musical elements from Taurus, it is not clear that Zeppelin has actually copied enough to be liable for copyright infringement.

Legitimate borrowing or copyright infringement?

One of the hardest challenges for copyright law is to tell when ordinary borrowing becomes infringement.

Musical quotation and variation has been very important in the development of western music. Igor Stravinsky is often quoted as saying that “lesser artists borrow, great artists steal”.

Unfortunately, while borrowing in music is common, it can get musicians into a lot of trouble. The Australian band Men at Work learnt this the hard way in 2010, when they lost a lawsuit that alleged songwriter Greg Ham copied the iconic flute riff in Down Under from the old folk song Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree.

Taurus, Spirit (1968).

Australia is currently rethinking the line between normal artistic practice and copyright infringement. The Australian Law Reform Commission’s recent report into copyright recommended Australia introduce either a “fair use” defence or a “quotation right” into copyright law.

Either of these changes could allow artists more freedom in borrowing from existing works. Especially for very small amounts of borrowing that cause no real harm to the original author – like the two bars of Kookaburra that were used in Down Under – this would probably be a very good result.

The real problem with many allegations about borrowing in music, as with other art forms, is that they often confuse artistic debts with legal ones. Preventing others from using basic combinations of melody and harmony could deprive artists the basic building blocks that make up much of our music.

A 43-year delay

The allegations by Spirit come a long time after Zeppelin and Spirit toured together in 1969. California apparently described Zeppelin’s riff as a “rip-off” in a 1997 interview, although fans have recognised similarities between the songs for decades.

If Spirit is successful, they will not be entitled to a share of all the past royalties earned by Stairway (estimated at more than US$550 million). But they might be entitled to a share of the future profits – and this could be very lucrative as Led Zeppelin plans to release remastered versions of all their albums next month.

These long delays can be common in copyright. The similarity between Kookaburra and Down Under took 25 years for the copyright owners to discover.

In 2009, a UK court awarded organist Matthew Fisher a 40% share in future royalties from English rock band Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale on the basis of co-authorship, 42 years after the song’s release.

Incidentally, many have noted the striking similarity between Fisher’s organ riff and Bach’s Air on the G String.

Join the conversation

13 Comments sorted by

  1. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    I suggest there is a difference between 'borrowing' or 'ripping off' someone else's music, and independently producing something that sounds the same.

    Even if these two pieces are similar or even substantially the same, how can you 'prove' that one was ripped off from the other?

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    1. Nicolas Suzor

      Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      The unfortunate answer is there's really no way to be sure - so the courts will often assume that it was copied if the second person had access to it and they can see similarities between the two. People have been held liable for copyright infringement even for subconscious copying.

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    2. George Takacs

      Physicist

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      You can't. For mine, the well known melodic line in Stairway to Heaven sounds very much like "O'Carolan's Dream", a piece by Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan. He lived from 1670-1738. Perhaps both bands, subconsciously or otherwise, borrowed from this. If you want to hear for yourself the similarity, search for you tube videos of classical guitar arrangements of this tune.

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  2. Pera Lozac

    Heat management assistant

    It just proves that copyright laws are detached from reality and that only purpose they serve is protection of big businesses. Human creativity develops from sharing not from protectionism. How can anyone own music? How derange that idea truly is. Can anyone own air that is vibrating when a guitar string is plucked?

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  3. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    This article would be much more informative if it was simply replaced by a link to the TED Talk from Kirby Ferguson - Everything is a remix

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  4. ricphillips

    logged in via Twitter

    Copyright is being applied in an absurd way in the music industry.

    The copyright owners of Kookaburra would never in a million years have written and recorded Down Under. Down under subtracted no income of benefit from them.

    Spirit never would have written Stairway to Heaven and the fact that a small part of Stairway to Heaven is a bit similar to Taurus in places really should be no basis for damages.

    While it is clear Men at Work did quote Kookaburra, the idea that Stairway is actually quoting Taurus is far more tenuous. (Hey, there are pieces of toast that look like the Madonna and the face of Elvis was spotted on Mars.)

    Placing arbitrary legal constructs on the replication and refactoring of aesthetic forms is counter to the evolutionary forces that make human language and communication work.

    In the end Copyright is based on a flawed ontology.

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    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to ricphillips

      absurd!? flawed ontology!? i.e. they're releasing a new "michael jackson album" after he's dead & buried. and pirates beware! -a.v.

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  5. con vaitsas

    worker

    Its common knowledge Zeppelin like many other bands of the 60's and 70's ripped off riffs/lyrics and tunes from old blues songs and avoiding paying any royalties or acknowledgement to these black dudes. Best we can do is find these blues artists and buy their records and listen to their musical talent. My collection of stomping blues music sits proudly next to the Zeppelin records I own.
    Finally, can we stop calling Stairway to Heaven the greatest rock song ever. For many yrs it was voted as such amongst great publicity etc and the public got to believe it. This song is not a rock n roll tune, its a bloody soft ballad. It aint rock'n'roll!!

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  6. Alistair McCulloch

    logged in via email @unisa.edu.au

    The problem for Zepp is they have previous form on this as a google search for 'Led Zeppelin plagiarism' will show. Among those who it is suggested have suffered from this are:

    Bert Jansch (Black Waterside)
    Jake Holmes (Dazed and Confused)
    Willie Dixon (You Need Love/Whole Lotta Love)

    There is a difference between borrowing from and covering while crediting the writer which is very different to taking and putting one's own name on as composer.

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  7. Bill Thompson

    logged in via Twitter

    To my ears, there is indeed substantial similarity between the tune in the two pieces - the descending lament bass is the fingerprint of both pieces. But it's only a legitimate claim if (a) Led Zeppelin had access to the Spirit song; and (b) the descending lament theme was an original contribution by Spirit, and not merely a "generic" progression seen repeatedly in the cannon. From the article, it seems the second condition can't be met. I don't think you should be allowed to "own" a generic progression that has already been used repeatedly in music. Led Zeppelin got many of their ideas from traditional English folk songs, and this is no exception. So if I were a juror, I'd vote for no infringement.

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    1. Alistair McCulloch

      logged in via email @unisa.edu.au

      In reply to Bill Thompson

      In terms of (a) Zep toured with Spirit in an early US tour in early 1969 (opening for them) and were playing one of Spirit's songs (Fresh garbage) within a few nights of the tour starting.

      In terms of (b) there are certainly similarities between each of the openings and also the beginning of Davy Graham's Cry Me A River. Graham was one of Bert Jansch's inspirations (writing Angie which became Jansch's signature song).

      As I said earlier, however, the main problem for Zep is that they have form in the area and you could fairly easily establish a pattern of behaviour.

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