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Putting Stairway on Trial: Led Zeppelin's Ripoff Defense in Four Songs

Led Zeppelin performing in London on Nov. 23, 1971

Photograph by Michael Putland/Getty Images

Led Zeppelin performing in London on Nov. 23, 1971

Led Zeppelin hasn’t responded yet to news that it faces a looming copyright infringement lawsuit over the band’s immortal classic rock anthem, and the allegations detailed in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek story haven’t been filed as court documents at this point. Yet with the help of fans and musicologists alike, it is possible to take a stab at what a defense of Stairway to Heaven might look like.

The band is facing a potential legal claim that Stairway’s introductory guitar notes were lifted from the 1968 song Taurus by Spirit, a band known to rock connoisseurs for the song I Got a Line on You and relatively obscure to most listeners. Led Zeppelin and its record company, Warner Music Group, had no comment for the original story, and a spokesman for the company didn’t respond to a new request for comment this week.

Let’s start with the case that Stairway is a ripoff of Taurus, a case made in the video below:

To fight back, Led Zeppelin’s best move would be to argue that neither of the passages in question is actually original, says Charles Cronin, a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law with a doctorate in musicology from Stanford University. The sequence of notes, with its descending bass line, “is in hundreds of thousands of musical works for hundreds of years,” he says.

Cronin cites as a much earlier Stairway ancestor the opening of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D, a staple of wedding processions. The 17th century composition was popularized in the 1980 film Ordinary People and is echoed in songs that range from Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry to Burger King’s Have it Your Way jingle.

In 1945, a version of It’s Been a Long Time used a similar progression on guitar:

Among Led Zeppelin’s amateur online defenders, meanwhile, Davy Graham’s 1959 version of Cry Me a River is one of the most frequently cited examples:

And even after Stairway came out in 1971, the progression lived on. Take a listen to Dolly Parton’s 1975 We Used To:

Of course, in the end, the best outcome for Led Zeppelin would be if a judge dismisses the suit with a Wayne’s World-inspired “No Stairway—denied.” In the meantime, be your own musicologist and play our game to see if your ears can hear the real Stairway to Heaven.

Silver is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Rome, and author of The Lost Chalice: The Real-Life Chase for One of the World's Rarest Masterpieces (HarperCollins). Follow him on Twitter @vtsilver.

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