Led Zeppelin Wins ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Appeal, Proving There’s At Least One Song They Didn’t Steal

Led Zepplin

Led Zeppelin has a bit of a reputation for stealing songs. They’ve lost a couple of lawsuits over it, notably by the estate of Richie Valens over the song ‘Boogie with Stu’ from the album Physical Graffiti which credits “Mrs. Valens” as a composer. But that lawsuit was actually about the amount of royalties as they used the lyrics and  it the music from Valens’ song ‘Ooh My Head’ and always gave his estate a composer credit.

One song Zeppelin can say they didn’t steal, however, is ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Before we get into it, I’ll let you do what the jurors in the original didn’t do, and that’s listen to the songs. This was the main basis of the appeal.

Here’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

Wow. There’s a reason that is considered the best rock song of all time. The lyrics are a bit inscrutable but the music in that song is clear about sex. It starts slow and builds and keeps building until we’ve gone from a soft, gentle melody on acoustic guitar to Jimmy Page wailing electric guitar riffs, Robert Plant screaming, John Bonham’s pounding drum line and John Paul Jones filling in an entire orchestra. And then after building to a huge, satisfying crescendo we go back to that slow, gentle melody at the very end.

Now here’s the song they’re accused of ripping off, ‘Taurus’ by Spirit.

That song is terrible. The lawsuit boiled down to the allegation that Page stole a four-note run in that song and honestly, who cares?

But man, that was really bad, I need a pallet cleanser. Let’s listen to the Beatles song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Fun fact, Eric Clapton is playing lead guitar on the track because the other Beatles didn’t care for it.

Wait a second, that sounds as close to ‘Taurus’ as ‘Taurus’ does to ‘Stairway to Heaven’. I wonder if it’s because they’re all playing in a minor key?

If I can play a song for a jury, I can convince them it’s plagiarized from another song, especially if I can just loop a few notes from each song.

Billboard covered the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which overturned an earlier appeal count’s decision to rehear the case and upheld the original jury’s decision.

A 54-page decision (read here) will likely become a new standard in copyright infringement cases and may be presented to the Supreme Court. Among other aspects of the decision, the Ninth Circuit determines it was not in error that the jury didn’t get to hear the “Taurus” sound recording at trial. Furthermore, the appeals court elects to ditch the “inverse ratio rule,” meaning the higher the degree of access to a work, the lower the bar for proving substantial similarity.

Personally, I think it’s a good decision. I don’t think a few notes means anything in terms of this song and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is very clearly a much, much different song. You might think a few notes at the beginning match a few notes of ‘Taurus’ but what does that even mean? It’s like saying any movie that has a character say “what the hell?” is copying the first time someone said that. It just doesn’t add up, and I don’t think anyone hearing both those songs would think they’re substantially similar songs outside of four notes.

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