UCR’s Led Zeppelin vs. Spirit ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Verdict: Our Writers Vote
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As Led Zeppelin‘s plagiarism trial over the authorship of “Stairway to Heaven” comes to a close, and we wait for the jury’s verdict on the matter, we decided to poll a few of our own experts on the matter. Five Ultimate Classic Rock writers offer their opinions on the case and whom they side with: the estate of late Spirit guitarist Randy California, who wrote the instrumental “Taurus,” or Zeppelin, whose classic “Stairway to Heaven” is said to contain an opening very similar to the Spirit song.
Of course, none of us are legal experts or else we’d have much higher-paying jobs. And we weren’t on-hand to personally examine the audio, visual and document-based evidence the real “Stairway to Heaven” jury saw. But that didn’t stop us from stating our opinions based on a comparison between the two songs and the daily reports from the trial:
Michael Gallucci: While Led Zeppelin have a history of, um, borrowing songs from other artists, and I find it hard to believe that Jimmy Page never heard “Taurus” — which is on the same side of an album as another Spirit song that Zeppelin have covered — I’d give this to Led Zeppelin. There’s a similar line running throughout so many songs over centuries of history, as the defense pointed out. Artists are always inspired by what came before them, whether it’s 300 years old or 30 days. There just isn’t enough evidence here to prove that Page and Robert Plant willfully ripped off Spirit’s “Taurus.”
Jeff Giles: I don’t envy the jurors in this trial. Aside from the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on the witness stand, they’re responsible for taking a totally subjective listening experience and using it to establish a potentially wide-ranging legal precedent. It’s pretty obvious that “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” share some musical DNA, but as people have pointed out countless times, there are only so many notes, chords and chord progressions to go around. The burden of proof is on the plaintiffs here, and based on what we’ve seen of the trial, it doesn’t seem like they’ve made a persuasive enough argument. Even given Zeppelin’s long history of poaching other artists’ work, I’d have a hard time handing down a guilty verdict here.
Annie Zaleski: I vote in favor of Led Zeppelin. Besides the fact that the trial hasn’t conclusively proven that Jimmy Page and company used “Taurus” as the basis for “Stairway To Heaven” – honestly, “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins sounds way more similar – the additional wrinkle that there’s even a doubt as to who actually owns the copyright to the Spirit song makes a conclusive judgment impossible.
Dave Lifton: I’d vote for Zeppelin. While the songs sound identical (and I don’t buy Page’s claim that he had never heard “Taurus”) it doesn’t meet the same criteria that required them to change the credits on “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” or “Whole Lotta Love.” I believe in the importance of what Pete Seeger called the “folk process,” where you take something and build upon it to create something new, which is what Led Zeppelin did. That’s how music evolves and it shouldn’t be litigated out of existence.
Matthew Wilkening: If I were Spirit, I would totally think that Led Zeppelin ripped me off. But from the outside you’d have to concede that if it wasn’t a coincidence it was most likely an unintentional borrowing; it’s easy to picture Plant and Page hearing but not at all consciously remembering “Taurus.” Proving that Led Zeppelin did wrong here seemed like an uphill battle from the start, and based on the reports we saw from this trial it doesn’t seem that Spirit were able to successfully make their case.
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