As the old adage goes, good artists copy, great artists steal. The victims of such artistic theft, however, might contest the veracity of such a statement. And while the musical greatness and innovations of classic rockers Led Zeppelin are an uncontestable fact, so too is it true that they have more than once used other artists riffs and lyrics and failed to properly credit or compensate them. On Monday a Pennsylvania judge ruled that relatives of deceased guitarist Randy California, nee Randy Craig Wolfe, could move forward with a lawsuit claiming Led Zeppelin stole the music from their career-defining 1971 epic “Stairway To Heaven” from his band Spirit’s 1968 recording “Taurus.” The intros of both songs are startlingly familiar, and the band’s were familiar with each other, however actually proving copyright infringement is a harder task.
Generally speaking, in order to prove a musical plagiarism lawsuit, one must prove that the lyrics or main vocal melody were copied. Chord progressions, instrumental riffs, and song titles do not typically receive a copyright. In addition, there is a long musical tradition of players borrowing ideas from each other and incorporating them into new compositions. This was especially true in the blues, on songs such as “Walking Blues” for example, which has been credited to both Robert Johnson and Son House. While Led Zeppelin are far from the only rock band that has claimed a blues lyric or borrowed riff as their own, there are unfortunately some rather egregious examples of the band’s liberal idea of original compositions that demand review in light of current events.
Led Zeppelin “Stairway To Heaven” (1971)
Everyone knows this 8-minute classic rock epic, which regularly tops lists of the greatest rock songs of all time and in many ways is the original power ballad. According to Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, the song was composed in 1970, during writing sessions in the Welsh countryside for the band’s fourth album.
Spirit “Taurus” (1968)
Members of this Los Angeles psychedelic rock group claim this instrumental, which is under 3 minutes long, was the basis for Zeppelin’s most famous song. The intros do sound exactly the same, however after that, the similarities between them end. Bolstering their argument though is the fact that the two bands toured together in the late ‘60s and Led Zeppelin was known to jam on Spirit’s “Fresh Garbage” live in concert.
Eric Clapton “Let It Grow” (1974)
For historic note, and also to illustrate the way songwriters sometimes unintentionally copy each other, in his 2006 autobiography, Eric Clapton acknowledges this song off his landmark 461 Ocean Boulevard album “totally ripped off” the Zeppelin classic in the verse.