The Case Against Led Zeppelin: Is Hard Rock's Greatest Band Guilty Of Musical Plagiarism?

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.