On 23 June 2016, a US federal jury concluded that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did not copy the opening guitar riff in “Stairway to Heaven” from the song “Taurus,” an earlier tune by US rock band Spirit. The latter song, a 2-minute 27-second instrumental, was recorded nearly four years before “Stairway,” and was released on Spirit’s self-titled debut album in 1968.
The conclusion of the “Stairway” case comes a little more than a year after a federal jury in Los Angeles, California, awarded millions to R&B-soul singer Marvin Gaye’s family. The jury decided that recording stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had plagiarized Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” in creating their hit single “Blurred Lines.”
Facts of the Case
The “Stairway” lawsuit had been brought by the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka “Randy California”), composer of “Taurus” and one of Spirit’s founding members. It alleged that the arpeggiated guitar part in the introduction of “Stairway” was substantially similar to the signature guitar element in “Taurus” and that Led Zeppelin became familiar with the song when they opened for Spirit in various US concert dates in 1968. Guitarist Page, who co-wrote “Stairway” with singer Plant and composed the guitar riff in question, testified in court that he did not recall hearing “Taurus” until recently, after his son-in-law told him that comparisons were being made between the two songs.
After a brief debate, the jury found that, while Page and Plant may have indeed heard the song, there was no substantial similarity in the extrinsic elements of “Taurus” and “Stairway.” This was lucky for Page and Plant because otherwise they would have been liable for a whole lotta damages. Estimates suggest that “Stairway” has generated some $500 million in revenue since its release. When the jurors heard “Taurus,” however, it was only from the sheet music of Spirit’s composition as played by musical experts hired by each side. Until 1978, songwriters could submit only sheet music to copyright a song in the United States. Thus, only the composition—and not the sound recording—was at issue in the case.
Copyright and Chord Progressions
The interesting question of law about whether and under what circumstances a four-chord progression itself could be copyrightable and whether similarities in instrumentation and orchestration could play a role in the answer was not addressed in this case.
This article was originally published on AllAboutIP – Mayer Brown’s blog on relevant developments in the fields of intellectual property and unfair competition law. For intellectual property-themed videos, Mayer Brown has launched a dedicated channel available here.