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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.