Is Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven plagiarised?

Was Stairway to Heaven plagiarised? Australian copyright law says ‘yes’ if it used a substantial part of another musician’s work.

With its impressive repertoire of instantly recognisable songs that continue to thrill audiences decades after they were first written, Led Zeppelin may be one of the most iconic bands of the modern age. In fact, over the course of the band's career, it has headlined over 500 shows.

Now, however, Led Zeppelin is back in the headlines. This time, it's not at centre stage, but at the centre of an imbroglio on intellectual property rights over the 1971 smash hit, Stairway to Heaven. Now, the originality of one of rock's most celebrated tracks will be settled in court.

Was Stairway's intro stolen?

The introduction of Stairway to Heaven is one of the most recognisable riffs among fans, but was it originally written by another artist? That is the substance of the claim brought forward by Michael Skidmore, a trustee of Randy Wolfe – guitarist for the band Spirit.

Skidmore claims that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – Led Zeppelin's lead guitarist and singer, respectively – took their famous intro from Spirit's earlier instrumental piece, Taurus. 

Where does the case stand?

"A subjective assessment of the 'concept and feel' of two works…[is] a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury."

The Honourable Gary Klausner, a district court judge, has ruled that there is enough similarity between Stairway to Heaven and Taurus for a jury to hear the case.

"While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure," said Judge Klausner, as reported by the BBC.

"What remains is a subjective assessment of the 'concept and feel' of two works… a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury."

Should the jury rule that Stairway was indeed stolen, Skidmore and Wolfe's estate stand to gain no more than half of the damages from Page and Plant, according to Judge Klausner. He reached this conclusion based on a contract signed by Wolfe in 1967.

This case will play out in court on May 10, 2016 in Los Angeles.

What does Australian copyright law say?

While this case will be heard in US court, Australian copyright law shows the complexity of the underlying issue. The crux of the case depends on whether Stairway does indeed use a substantial amount of material from Taurus. 

According to the Australian Copyright Council, a substantial amount could be as little as a few notes or bars, so long as it is an essential or important part of the work.

Music fans will have to wait patiently for the court date to find out whether Led Zeppelin is guilty of intellectual property infringement.