'Stairway to Heaven' controversy: Can anyone own a chord progression?

'Stairway to Heaven' features an iconic intro that classic rockers Led Zeppelin have been accused of pirating from the band Spirit. When do inspiration and influence cross the line into plagiarism?

Rusty Kennedy/AP
Lead singer Robert Plant (l.) and guitarist Jimmy Page (r.) of the British rock band Led Zeppelin perform at the Live Aid concert at Philadelphia's J.F.K. Stadium, on July 13, 1985. The band has been accused of stealing the iconic intro to the song "Stairway to Heaven" from the band Spirit.

For more than four decades, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” has ushered young guitarists into the realm of rock 'n' roll and served as the soundtrack to countless road trips, proms, and first kisses. More than 40 years after its release, the band is facing renewed allegations it stole the iconic intro to the song from the band Spirit.

Spirit’s founding bassist Mark Andes and the estate of late Spirit guitarist Randy California are planning to file a copyright infringement lawsuit and seek an injunction that would prevent Zeppelin from rereleasing the album containing the song, which the band has plans to do this summer, Bloomberg Businessweek reports.

Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit during their first American tour in 1968. The song “Taurus,” a 2-1/2-minute instrumental featuring a plucked guitar chord progression that sounds very similar to the opening of “Stairway to Heaven,” was a fixture of Spirit’s set during that tour, Mr. Andes told Bloomberg.

“It was such a pretty moment, and it would typically come after a big forceful number and always got a good response,” Andes told Bloomberg. “They would have seen it in that context.”

There is little doubt that there are similarities between the two songs. However all of music is something of a collaborative progression, with musicians borrowing chords, riffs, and styles from one another. Every musician has a long list of other artists that they consider influential to their musical career.

However, at some point, influence and homage can cross the line into plagiarism.

That line typically comes down to whether the artist simply echoes a standard chord progression or actually lifts a melody from the original song, says songwriter Bonnie Hayes.

In the case of Stairway to Heaven, the chord progression is very similar to the one in "Taurus," but it is also a standard arpeggio form that can be heard in the 1937 song "My Funny Valentine," Ms. Hayes says.

As professor and chair of the Songwriting Department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Hayes encourages her students to borrow chord progressions that appeal to them – provided that they layer their own melody on top.

“The Led Zeppelin melody is much more distinct … it has a tight counter melody which isn’t present in the Spirit one and that counter melody is what I think is defining in the Led Zeppelin piece,” she says. “My feeling is that they are not similar enough to make a claim like that.”

That said, Led Zeppelin has been sued for copyright infringement before. The band has added additional names to the writing credits for “Whole Lotta Love,” “Babe I’m Going to Leave You,” “The Lemon Song,” and “Dazed and Confused” after settling infringement suits.

“We know that they were happy thieves, but they also had one of the most unique sounds,” Hayes says. “Led Zeppelin really was one of the most original bands ever in the history of rock and roll.”

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