Even Led Zeppelin is innocent sometimes. A jury just ruled that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did not plagiarize the Spirit song "Taurus" when they composed the classic-rock warhorse "Stairway to Heaven."
There is no question in my mind that the jurors reached the right decision. I say that even though the two songs undeniably open with similar guitar riffs, as you can hear in this side-by-side comparison:
There is a difference between being similar and identical, and there are some clear differences between the two guitar parts. That in itself might not have been enough to save Zeppelin in the wake of last year's "Blurred Lines" case, when Marvin Gaye's estate successfully sued Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke over a song that copied the "feel" but not the actual notes of Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." But in this case, riffs that sound vaguely like the start of "Stairway" have been around a lot longer than the Spirit record. Davy Graham's version of "Cry Me a River," recorded a decade before "Taurus," is a case in point:
But why start in the '50s? Giovanni Battista Granata composed "Sonata di Chittarra, e Violino, con il suo Basso Continuo" three and a half centuries ago, and you can hear an obvious precursor to the "Stairway" opening about 35 seconds into the piece:
If Led Zeppelin ripped off Spirit, then both bands ripped off Granata—and Granata's work is in the public domain, as are any other examples of this musical idea that precede him. So even under the far-too-restrictive set of rules that make up modern copyright law, everyone is free to do as they please with this age-old sequence of sounds. Led Zeppelin's members may be guilty of all kinds of criminal debauchery, depending on how much credence you put in that copy of Hammer of the Gods your pals were passing around in high school. Hell, there are genuine cases of them lifting from other artists' work. But in this instance, I think it's clear that there's no infringement.
Thankfully, the jury agreed. As Aram Sinnreich wrote earlier this month, "if the bar for [proving] copyright infringement gets lower, then the risk of getting sued gets higher—especially in the world of pop, where music tends to be both highly formulaic and highly profitable. Greater risk means higher cost, which means that only the companies with the deepest pockets and the best lawyers can afford to bring new music to market." A loss today would have been a loss for bands with far less cash and influence than Led Zeppelin.