Did Led Zeppelin Steal the Opening Riff in “Stairway to Heaven?”
Take a listen to these two songs. The first is easily recognizable as Led Zeppelin’s classic “Stairway to Heaven,” and has been hailed by fans and critics alike as being one of the greatest rock hits of all time since its 1971 release.
Now listen to song #2. This instrumental is titled “Taurus” and was released in 1968 on the debut album of the lesser known American rock band Spirit. Somewhere near the 45-second mark you may begin to notice something. The melodies begin to sound pretty similar.
So much so that a Los Angeles judge ruled Friday that a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page will head to trial.
The lawsuit was brought by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for estate of the late Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, who was Spirit’s guitarist as well as the composer of “Taurus.” Skidmore first filed the lawsuit against Led Zeppelin in 2014 claiming that Led Zeppelin was inspired to write “Stairway to Heaven” after hearing Spirit perform “Taurus” during shared gigs in 1968 and 1969.
However, the judge noted that Led Zeppelin’s surviving members testified “they never toured with, shared a stage with, or listened to any of Spirit’s music during these brief encounters.”
Still in a 1979 winter issue of the magazine “Listener,” Wolfe called Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” a “ripoff” saying,
And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it.
Wolfe drowned that same year while rescuing his 12-year-old son from a rip current near his home in Hawaii.
According to Rolling Stone, Spirit and Wolfe’s family waited until now to challenge the song’s copyright because they lacked the finances to afford an attorney.
This isn’t the first time Led Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarizing other artists. In 2014 Bloomberg Businessweek explained that the band has built somewhat of a reputation for “borrowing” bits and pieces from blues and folk singers. Over several decades Led Zeppelin has been forced to alter credits and royalties for some of its biggest songs after artists successfully won similar copyright infringement lawsuits against it. The plagiarism accusations have even lead to rise in YouTube mashup videos comparing Led Zeppelin’s songs to their alleged influencers.
The music industry has seen a rise in high profile copyright infringement cases in recent years, including Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ loss to Marvin Gaye’s family over their song “Blurred Lines” and Sam Smith’s rumored settlement with Tom Petty over his song “Stay With Me.” In both cases the songs’ similarities to their predecessors are almost unnoticeable to non-audiophiles’ ears. That can’t necessarily be said of Led Zeppelin and Spirit’s case.
The “Stairway to Heaven” trial is set to begin on May 10. Wolfe’s estate attorneys are asking that he be credited for the song and earn a portion of the song’s profits, which according to NPR were up to $562 million in 2008. However, Wolfe’s trustee could only earn half of any awarded damages due to a 1967 contract that Wolfe signed.