NYU Steinhardt News

Dr. Ferrara Testifies in Led Zeppelin Copyright Battle

Dr. Lawrence Ferrara, MPAP faculty and Director Emeritus, was the expert musicologist for Led Zeppelin in what has become the most visible copyright infringement case of the century. 

The case centered around similarities between their 1971 song “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus,” a song by the band Spirit from 1968. The estate of Randy Wolfe, Spirit’s guitarist and the writer of “Taurus,” claimed that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones stole about ten seconds of “Taurus” and used it in the famous introduction of “Stairway to Heaven.”

Led Zeppelin, of course, went on to become a much more successful band than Spirit. The economist Spirit called to testify on their behalf, Michael Einhorn, estimated that Led Zeppelin earned more than $60 million from “Stairway to Heaven” over the past five years. Had they lost, Led Zeppelin would have owed Wolfe’s estate millions of dollars in royalties. Led Zeppelin ultimately won the case.

Dr. Ferrara was brought in to testify for Led Zeppelin. He acknowledged that “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” share a descending chromatic line, but asserted that it is a “common building block in songs dating back 300 years and is found throughout pop music predating Wolfe's composition from 1967 or 1968,” according to the Chicago Tribune.

"They are a musical building block that no one can possibly own," Ferrara said of the chromatic line, according to the LA Times.  

According to reports of the trial, Dr. Ferrara sat at a keyboard in the courtroom and played portions of other well-known songs that share this trait such as “My Funny Valentine” and “Michelle” by the Beatles. Dr. Ferrara compared the importance of the differences in the arrangement of notes in the songs to taking the letters in the word “treason” to write the word “senator,” noted the Chicago Tribune. The LA Times quoted Dr. Ferrara as saying that the similarities between the two songs are “absolutely meaningless.”