Opinion: ‘Stairway to Heaven’ versus ‘Taurus’: The fine line between a copy and an original

Forty years have come and gone since Jimmy Page wrote Led Zeppelin’s classic song “Stairway to Heaven.” Flash forward to 2014, and members of the band Spirit are suing the iconic group for copyright infringement.

The claim is that the opening guitar riff on “Stairway to Heaven” is from Spirit’s song “Taurus.” This lawsuit poses an important question: where is the boundary between inspiration and copyright infringement?

There is some pretty incriminating evidence against Led Zeppelin. Spirit opened for them in 1968 through 1969, and Page began writing “Stairway to Heaven” in 1970.

When I listened to “Taurus” for the first time, I instantaneously recognized the riff because I have heard it many times before in the famous Zeppelin song. But when I listened to “Stairway to Heaven” directly after, I realized that the sound was totally different.

Some portions of the riffs are simply recognizable; others are completely different. Spirit is suing Zeppelin for a small portion of the song; “Taurus” is a two-and-a-half-minute instrumental, whereas “Stairway to Heaven” is a ten-minute ballad about materialism and the corruption that follows.

Some of the most iconic bands admit to being derivative of older rock and blues bands, very few of whom have sought recognition for their work.

Like it or not, Led Zeppelin was the more popular band. They took the riff, made it better, and added it to a more interesting song. It is not like Spirit was going to get rich and famous over “Taurus.” It was a mediocre song at best.

So, if a band takes a section of a song and makes it better, is that really stealing? Well, this is not black and white. The members of Led Zeppelin did not break into the houses of the members of Spirit to physically steal something, but they did take a riff that was obviously a part of “Taurus” and make it their own.

The boundary between deriving from another work and copyright infringement is based on how similar the two songs are and how similar the lyrics are. Lyrics are easier make a distinction between because they are either the same or they are not. Music is different because the beat can be the same and the notes are different or the other way around. If the whole song has the same notes or beats, then that is stealing, or if the lyrics are the same, then that is stealing as well.

“Stairway to Heaven” has a very short part of something similar to a riff from “Taurus,” not the riff itself. The two songs are very different, and I do not think that it is copyright infringement.

Artists, especially musicians, put themselves and their music on the line when they perform, hoping their version is the best and their band is the most famous. In this case, Led Zeppelin was the better band.