Barring any out-of-court settlement, the jury trial pitting Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” against Spirit’s “Taurus” will begin May 10. Did Jimmy Page appropriate the opening arpeggios of “Stairway” after hearing “Taurus” when Zep toured with Spirit 1967-68? That’s what everyone wants to know.
Both sides are bolstering their cases in pre-trial documents and the occasional carefully-placed leak. But now there is a wrinkle. What if “Taurus” wasn’t the source of “Stairway?”
Come with me back to 1959 for a song called “Cry Me a River” from a British artist named Davy Graham. Let’s take a listen to the song, paying close attention to the passage that runs from :19 to 1:02.
So here’s the thing: Is it possible that Led Zep was “inspired” by Davy Graham and not Spirit? Or could Spirit have “borrowed” it from Davy Graham? Not that he can sue–although people have pointed out the similarities for decades–because he died in 2008. No, Spirit is not the band on trial here, but if someone can throw reasonable doubt into where Jimmy Page’s inspiration came from, that could derail a portion of Spirit’s case. Read more at Digital Music News.
Meanwhile, this writer at Salon has another angle on the trial: the “nearly impossible copyright standard.”
The poet T.S. Eliot had this to say about the creative process: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Unfortunately, copyright law doesn’t line up very well with this realistic appraisal of how a lot of art, especially popular art, is created. The latest example of that disjunction is the lawsuit brought by the estate of Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California, against Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, for purportedly lifting the memorable opening guitar line of “Stairway to Heaven.”
According to the suit, that passage is “substantially similar” — the critical legal standard that has to be met for a copyright to be infringed — to the opening bars of the song “Taurus,” which Wolfe wrote for the band Spirit in 1967, four years before Led Zeppelin wrote “Stairway” (Wolfe, who was something of a musical prodigy, was just 16 at the time).
Wolfe died nearly 20 years ago while saving his son from drowning in a riptide off a Hawaiian beach. Near the end of his life he publicly acknowledged the similarities between the two songs, and noted that the two bands had toured together in 1968 and 1969, which gave Page and Plant ample opportunities to have their subsequent songwriting influenced by Wolfe’s work.
Yet he himself never tried to make a legal claim of partial ownership to perhaps the single most profitable song in rock music history (it has generated hundreds of millions of dollars of royalties).