Experts Testify in Stairway to Heaven Lawsuit, Led Zeppelin Wins
Did Led Zeppelin steal the opening riff on “Stairway to Heaven” from a song by the band Spirit? A jury will answer that question after considering the testimony of expert witnesses.
Copyright Infringement Alleged
Led Zeppelin, one of the most influential bands in rock history, has often been accused of stealing its material. That might not mean much, as similar accusations are frequently leveled against successful bands. Copyright infringement claims keep courts and expert witnesses busy as less popular songwriters contend that parts of their songs were used with greater success by other songwriters.
In 2011, Rolling Stone ranked “Stairway to Heaven” 31 on its list of 500 greatest songs. Released in November 1971, Led Zeppelin credited lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page as the songwriters.
A lawsuit filed by the estate of deceased Spirit band member Randy Craig Wolfe, known professionally as “Randy California,” alleges that Led Zeppelin stole the opening section of “Stairway to Heaven” from the Spirit song “Taurus.” Wolfe wrote “Taurus” in 1966 or 1967. A comparison of the two songs reveals similarities and differences in the riff that forms the basis for the lawsuit.
Evidence at trial has been inconsistent about the degree to which Plant and Page were aware of Spirit’s music, and in particular the song “Taurus.” Before the trial began, the judge ruled that the evidence was sufficient to allow the jury to decide whether Plant and Page had heard the song and whether they incorporated a part of “Taurus” into “Stairway to Heaven.”
Plaintiff’s Expert Testimony
Wolfe’s estate is relying in part on the expert testimony of Kevin Hanson, a guitar instructor and former member of the band Huffamoose. Hanson played the riff from both songs and testified that they are virtually identical. Hanson also showed the jury a video of a part of the two songs played simultaneously, and told the jury that they sound like one piece of music.
Also testifying as an expert for Wolfe’s estate was musician and producer Robert Mathes. In an effort to blunt the defense contention that the chord progression used in both songs is commonplace, Mathes testified that other songs have similar structures, but that the shared elements of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” are unique.
The lawsuit was filed in 2014, and the estate cannot recover damages that arose earlier than three years before the suit was filed. The estate called Michael Einhorn as an expert on music royalties. Einhorn testified that Plant and Page have made more than $58 million since 2011. News sources suggest that Einhorn was unclear as to how much of that $58 million was specifically attributable to “Stairway to Heaven.”
Defense Expert Testimony
Apart from denials that Plant and Page copied the riff, the defense is relying on the expert testimony of musicologist and NYU music professor Lawrence Ferrara. The court rejected a last-minute challenge to Ferrara’s testimony. The plaintiffs claimed that its publisher had previously hired Ferrara to evaluate the songs’ similarity, creating a conflict of interest for Ferrara. The judge denied the motion to exclude Ferrara’s testimony because the motion was filed too late.
Ferrara testified that the only similarity between “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” is a “descending chromatic minor line progression” that has been a common feature of music for the last 300 years. Other songs featuring the same chord progression, according to Ferrara, include “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins, “My Funny Valentine,” and “Michelle” by the Beatles.
What Did the Jury Say?
There is no doubt that the opening of “Stairway to Heaven” is similar to the chord progression in “Taurus.” An editorial in the Los Angeles Times notes that “they both are largely in A minor, cover eight measures, have a descending bass line and have much the same rhythmic pattern.” As the Times observed, “You can’t help but notice how much alike those phrases sound.”
There is evidence that Page and Plant at least had access to “Taurus” before “Stairway to Heaven” was released, including the fact that Led Zeppelin and Spirit toured together in the late 1960s. As the Times points out, however, there is a difference between inspiration and infringement.
As it turns out, the jury came back with the verdict that there was no copyright infringement, saying there was no "extrinsic similarity between Spirit's 'Taurus' and 'Stairway to Heaven.'"