Judge Rules Against Led Zeppelin, Says Pennsylvania a Fine Venue to Decide Whether "Stairway to Heaven" Opening Was a Spirit Rip Off


Wayne's World screencap
"Wayne's World"

The relatives of the founding members of Spirit, a 60s/70s psychedelic/prog-rock band, are suing Led Zeppelin, alleging that the opening riff to "Stairway to Heaven" was lifted from Spirit's song "Taurus." Led Zeppelin apparently have a history of being inspired by music that came before them (and what musical act hasn't?) provides some background:

This is not from the first time that Led Zeppelin has gone to court for failing to credit borrowed riffs and melodies. Page has previously blamed Robert Plant, the band's singer and lyricist, for most of the earlier instances, as in this 1993 interview with Guitar World:

"I always tried to bring something fresh to anything that I used. I always made sure to come up with some variation. In fact, I think in most cases you would never know what the original source could be. Maybe not in every case — but in most cases. So most of the comparisons rest on the lyrics. And Robert was supposed to change the lyrics, and he didn't always do that — which is what brought on most of the grief. They couldn't get us on the guitar parts of the music, but they nailed us on the lyrics. We did take some liberties, I must say."

The lawsuit was filed in May and in a ruling last week a judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed Led Zeppelin's challenge over the venue: the group's lawyers argued that none of the members of Led Zeppelin live or work in Pennsylvania nor have any connections that would warrant holding the trial there. The judge disagreed, buying into the argument by the plaintiffs that because "Stairway to Heaven" is marketed in Eastern Pennsylvania, the trial can be held there.

Here's a comparison of the openings of "Taurus" and "Stairway to Heaven":

Unlike the Marvin Gaye/"Blurred Lines" dust up, I don't hear a similarity here. In that case, Gaye's relatives used a "mashup" of Robin Thicke and Pharrell's "Blurred Lines" and  Gaye's"Got to Give it Up" to show a resemblance. Thicke and Pharrell's lawyers argue no element of "Got to Give it Up" is copied in "Blurred Lines" even if the two sound similar. Here's a mash up, it's probably not the one used in court:

And while we're at it here's Axis of Awesome showing just how many songs use the same four chord progression:

Everything's derivative!

More Reason on IP here.

NEXT: U.K. Government Threatens to Shut Down Religious Schools For Not Promoting Tolerance Aggressively Enough

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Anyway remember the controversy over whether or not Monty Norman or John Barry wrote the James Bond Theme? When John Barry claimed that he wrote similar music (in particular the opening notes) before 1962 Norman’s lawyers countered by bringing up that Artie Shaw and Kurt Weill had used similar music to the Bond theme opening.

    1. You know who else wrote something that only got noticed after the fact?

      1. Everyone who didn’t write something that was noticed before the fact?

      2. The guy who made The Innocence of Muslims?

      3. Barack Obama?

      4. God?

        I’m kidding, Bo, I’m kidding!!

        1. Bo?

          I’m kidding, God, I’m kidding!!

  2. It’s crap in this case–I can’t hear much similarity at all.

    Lots and lots of music out there, so there’s always someone who can come up with a claim based on some similarity. And, of course, some of it isn’t coincidental.

    There’s some allegation like this around most monster hits, I bet.

  3. Remember Kingdom Come? Good times.

    1. Classic Captain Marvel Superman fight in there.

      1. Hell can we just have a dumb comic bullshit thread? Remember that time Superman was a communist dictator and Lex Luthor kicked his ass with self-awareness?

        1. A great comic, Red Son by Mark Millar. Millar also wrote Marvel’s Civil War storyline which just happens to be the subject of a fairly stupid Slate article today:

          “Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy”


  4. Uhm, you’re going to tell me that an acoustic guitar riff opening a song in the late 60s early 70s is defacto proof of a copy?

    Sure, the chord changes are similar, but if we suddenly started suing everyone who wrote a song using a “blues scale” we’re in deep trouble.

  5. “Everything’s derivative!”

    Technically, everything is an indefinite integral, no?

    1. Someone has read their Zamyatin.

      1. Ha. I wish. That said, it does sound interesting from wiki description.

        Final revolution +1.

        1. Nice.

          Seriously, We is *well* worth reading and reflecting upon. The guy was really ahead of his time.

          1. Agreed, one of the great dystopian novels.

  6. There are others who could probably successfully sue Zep for plagiarism, but I don’t think Spirit has much of a case. The melodic motif in question is just too common.

    1. And have I think…Willie Dixon.

      One of my favorite Led Zepplin songs is “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” from Presence. Years after buying the album bought a Yazoo compilation of the Texas blues/gospel guitarist Blind Willie Johnson, one of the songs on the compilation…”Nobody’s Fault but Mine”…changed somewhat but the underlying chord sequence seems about the same. At least Zep knew their blues and stole from the best, but it would have been great to see some recognition given.

      Also Clapton initially failed to give credit to Robert Johnson for his borrowings. Johnson’s heirs plus attorney = nice revenue stream.

    2. They paid Howlin’ Wolf an undisclosed settlement for their shameless rip-off of Killing Floor.

      I assume the Viagra people are paying his estate for Smokestack Lightning.

  7. I think Spirit is just doing this to try and get a few more clicks on Itunes/Amazon.

  8. I remember a while back, Joe Satriani sued some musician saying the other musician ripped off his riff. It wasn’t an entire song, just some chord progression or some bars of some arrangement, that sort. The other musician was like “WTF, I don’t even listen to you” or something to that effect. I still like Satriani’s music but my respect for him plummeted after that.

    1. Have you heard his last two albums?

      1. He’s an astonishing guitarist.

    2. Wasn’t that Coldplay? If its what I’m thinking about the the Coldplay music seemed note for note the same as Satriani’s music.

      1. You’re right, it was Coldplay. I never heard both versions of whatever was in question so I have no opinion, but I can imagine Coldplay has sold more copies of one hit single than Satriani has from his entire catalog. No criticism of Satch, just saying that Coldplay could make a hell of a lot more from a Satriani song Joe could himself.

        1. I can remember listening to the two pieces of music and note for note Coldplay was the same as Satch and also thinking the Satch had a nice check arriving soon.

    3. “Joe Satriani ”

      Continuing the comic book theme supra, Surfing with the Alien from Satriani featured Marvel’s Silver Surfer character.

  9. At least two metal bands have plagiarized the Meow Mix commercial that goes “MEOW meow meow meow MEOW meow meow meow…”

  10. On first listen I thought it sounded similar, but listening again for exactly what’s different and what’s the same I realized it’s pretty different. The main element that’s the same is arpeggiated guitar chords with a descending bass line, and if that’s the claim then they should be suing a lot more people than Led Zeppelin. I would call it “possibly inspired by”, not copied from.

    But most of my lack of sympathy for the suit comes from the fact that it’s not even the guy who wrote the song suing; it’s his estate! The dude’s dead, but someone else is looking to score a buck off him. That’s just wrong. We often have arguments about copyright, but I’m pretty sure we can all agree that going beyond the death of the creator is too long. Hell, we have music written from the 20s and 30s that still aren’t public domain even though the authors have been dead for over 50 years. That’s insane.

    1. Really sucked when the sax/flute guy killed himself after they lost big in the plagiarism case concerning “Down Under”. The song he was accused of ripping off was a kids nursery song from the 20’s that had just had the rights bought to a few years back.…..ce/3962628

  11. Why is Reason talking about this decision from a Pennsylvania Court when this just happened to a Pennsylvanian Supreme Court Justice?

    “The most recent misconduct of Justice McCaffery ? forwarding sexually explicit pornographic emails to employees of the Attorney General’s Office (and, in one instance, an email depicting a naked 100-year-old woman as the target of a sexually explicit joke and a video of a woman in sexual congress with a snake that is clearly obscene and may violate the Crimes Code Section on Obscenity) ? has caused the Supreme Court to be held up to public ridicule,” Castille wrote. “This conduct deserves the immediate action as implemented by this court today.”

    1. “a video of a woman in sexual congress with a snake that is clearly obscene ”

      Hey, that’s for the jury to decide!

    2. Crimes Code Section on Obscenity


    3. A Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice caught up in a government pornographic email scandal apologized Thursday for a “lapse in judgment” but said he believes the court’s chief justice is out to get him.

      Well, you just handed him a good reason with a ribbon on it.

  12. Thanks to Axis of Awesome for showing me why so many of those tunes are so easily mashed up.

    1. …4:57 mark for about 30 seconds.

  13. Eventually all this “who had the riff/progression first” stuff will be settled quickly by computer search. It’ll probably turn out that the Greeks and Chinese should get all the royalties.

    1. Riffs? They stole entire songs including the lyrics. Without permission or credits.

  14. If I were the judge, I would want to see more testimony from the girl in the second video.

  15. “College Students Fight Catholic School’s ‘Unfair And Unjust’ Ban On Birth Control”…..h-control/

    You guessed it, translated from liberal speak it reads ‘College Students Upset School Will Not Provide Them With Birth Control.’

    My favorite line? “But a nurse at Fordham’s health center refused to administer those injections, and it took Field some time to find another doctor in New York.”


    1. Sort of like how parents arguing a book with child rape in it shouldn’t be in High School libraries is the equivalent of ‘book banning.’

      If you don’t think a school should provide it to people, you must not think they should be allowed to have it at all!

      Also, why the fuck would you go to a Catholic school and then whine that they won’t give you free birth control?

      1. I think it’s a bit different when you’re dealing with a school library, at least a public one. When a parent works to remove that book from the library it is removed not just for their child, but for other high schoolers whose parents may not have a problem with the book at all. The school library is essentially a public resource, and removing a book from its shelves is like removing it from the local public library.

        “why the fuck would you go to a Catholic school and then whine that they won’t give you free birth control?”

        Well, the vast majority of Catholics don’t follow their Church’s silly prescriptions on birth control, so there’s that. But yes, it’s not as if they can say they were misled into thinking access to birth control would be part of what they contracted for.

      2. Also, why the fuck would you go to a Catholic school and then whine that they won’t give you free birth control?

        I’m gonna wade in on this with a certain amount of trepidation…

        Here in Seattle, there are a number of high quality Catholic schools that wealthy progressives send their kids to. Because they’re high quality. And there’s no way in hell a wealthy progressive is going to send his kid to public school.

        1. The reason the schools are high quality is because they aren’t progressive.

          Of course, most progressives aren’t progressive, they’re just whiny assholes who want to signal to their socioeconomic group.

  16. “Your honor, i would like to refer you to Code 37G9 of the “Timeless Laws of the Universe”, specifically the “Fuck You = We’re Led Zeppelin” clause….”

  17. In the end, Zeppelin lifted a LOT of stuff, but if Jake Holmes, probably the most deeply raped of all, can be cool about it, everyone else should probably just back off. And, anyway, there should be some sort of statute of limitations on something like this. It’s over 40 years ago. If you’ve not seen fit to challenge it by now, or by 1973, you’ve tacitly let it move into public domain.

    Given that, I love it when people lift Zeppelin’s twists and throw the whole lift thing back at them.

    1. Best cover band ever. YouTube is full of examples of their rip-offs. To the point that I’m surprised when it’s discovered that they have a few songs they actually wrote.

      The real shocking part is that they openly stole songs which were popular releases less than a decade earlier. Did they think nobody would notice?

  18. This happened in 1971. Stairway to heaven probably got more airplay than any other piece of music in the 20th century. Spirit is just now noticing this? WTF?

  19. Cracked wrote about this some time ago and pointed out that A) Led Zepplin opened for Spirit on their first tour, and B) Spirit’s guitarist didn’t want any money but just acknowledgment for this.

  20. The British Blues bands of the 60’s (The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayer’s Bluesbreakers, etc…) loved the American Bluesmen. They covered them often (with credit) and jammed with them whenever possible.

    What they never did was rip them off. Led Zepplin had no class.

  21. Couple things. As pointed out above, it’s important to note that A) Led Zep has a history of lifting things, often without even changing the lyrics, B) Zep’s first US concert was OPENING for Spirit on the tour for the album Taurus was released on, and C) they shared the stage at festivals in 1969. So it’s virtually impossible for Zeppelin not to be aware of the this song.

    That said, as a reasonably decent guitarist, I don’t hear enough similarity here to make a case. A recent case that I haven’t heard an update on, The Black Crowes suing Gretchen Wilson (their Jealous Again vs her Work Hard, Play Harder) is a much better case.

    As far as Blurred Lines and Marvin Gaye go, you can’t copyright a percussion line. Thicke and Williams were open about wanting to do a song with that percussive feel. But hitting bells and glass bottles in a rhythmic pattern isn’t protected–the recording is, and they didn’t sample the recording. So there is nothing to that one.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.