Article April 20, 2016

What a riff off

In a world of Beliebers, Simon Cowell and disposable talent show winners, it seems hard to conceive that there was a time when actual bands (you know, with, like, their own songs and guitars and stuff) dominated the charts. One such a band was Led Zeppelin – not only are they widely held to be one of the most innovative and successful groups of all time, they are also often cited as the inventors of metal music.

According to a recently filed lawsuit, however, one of their most iconic songs “Stairway to Heaven” wasn’t quite so innovative. The suit has been brought by A Michael Skidmore, trustee of the guitarist and composer of the now largely forgotten band Spirit. It alleges that the famous opening riff of Stairway to Heaven was plagiarised from a Spirit song “Taurus”, which Led Zeppelin would have heard when the two bands were on tour together in the late 1960s. On the face of it the two riffs do seem strikingly similar, which is why the case has been allowed to proceed by US Judge Gary Klausner.

Interestingly, this similarity appears to have been conceded by Led Zeppelin’s lawyers, who are arguing that the descending four-chord progression is so ubiquitous as to be devoid of originality, and, therefore, cannot benefit from copyright protection. Historically, proving copyright infringement in such cases has been incredibly difficult, the threshold of similarity was very high and the plaintiff had to show that the defendant actually would have heard the original work. However, a number of recent cases, most notably the one brought by the Marvin Gaye estate against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, seem to suggest that the bar has been lowered. If you’d like to read more about the case and the wider issue of copyright infringement in the music industry, check out this article on the Guardian Website: