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“Stairway to Heaven” had a close shave

The 1971 rock music template “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin has provided many rock bands a blueprint to follow to help them soar in their respective musical careers including “November Rain” by the Guns N’ Roses’, “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, and “Lightning Crashes” by Live. However, the band had been fighting a long copyright battle over the 1971 megahit “Stairway to Heaven”.


The dispute started in 2014 when the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe sued Led Zeppelin by allegedly blaming them for copyright infringement issues. The estate claimed that “Stairway to Heaven” violated the copyright of the 1968 song “Taurus”. After the judgement got ruled in favour of the estate in the year 2018, Zeppelin’s attorney resorted to a 9th Circuit. It brought with it a major win to guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant.


A teaching professor of the College of Arts, Media, and Design at Northeastern University and also an entertainment attorney, David Herlihy expresses his thoughts on the case. When asked what he thinks about such plagiarism or copyright infringement issues in the music industry, he says that such cases generally focus on the similarity between the lyrics and the vocal melody. He points out the similarity between both the songs, “The A minor arpeggio in “Taurus” lasts for 10 seconds and it appears in “Stairway to Heaven” for two minutes. “Stairway” also features vocal melodies and lyrics throughout much of its eight minutes of running time. Even if Page and Plant did copy “Taurus,” the passage in question is short, and not original to California. “Stairway to Heaven” is not substantially similar to “Taurus.” He also finds a similarity between the introductions of both the songs.


Herlihy says that when a band has been accused of plagiarism, it is liable to pay the copyright damages or statutory damages. In that case, “Stairway to Heaven” would have been liable to pay heavy damage after a profit of hundreds of millions of dollars if found guilty. He admits that “inspiration and borrowing have always been at the heart of creativity”, but an infringement would have been a boon to the copyright litigators.


Subarna Basu