Zeppelin Took My Blues Away: An Illustrated History of Zeppelin’s “Copyright Indiscretions”


Few have gone broke work­ing in copy­right law. Some, how­ev­er, have gone broke break­ing it. Oth­ers have built up enough of a rep­u­ta­tion and for­tune by bend­ing the rules just far enough, though they still run the risk of, if not going finan­cial­ly bank­rupt, then look­ing cre­ative­ly bank­rupt. The Eng­lish rock band Led Zep­pelin seems to have art­ful­ly walked just this line for decades, though their usage of the blues and folk songs that inspired them has more recent­ly under­gone some seri­ous­ly high-pro­file exam­i­na­tion in court. Even their sig­na­ture “Stair­way to Heav­en” had a suit filed against it in May, “brought by the estate of the late musi­cian Randy Cal­i­for­nia against the sur­viv­ing mem­bers of Led Zep­pelin and their record label. The copy­right infringe­ment case alleges that the Zep­pelin song was tak­en from the sin­gle ‘Tau­rus’ by the 1960s band Spir­it, for whom Cal­i­for­nia served as lead gui­tarist.


Those look­ing to make up their own minds about the rel­e­vant issues of musi­cal author­ship here can look to Zep­pelin Took My Blues Away, an “illus­trat­ed his­to­ry of copy­right indis­cre­tions,” cre­at­ed in trad­ing card for­mat, and fea­tur­ing clips for the pur­pos­es of com­par­i­son and con­trast. In this post, we have the card and clips doc­u­ment­ing the resem­blances between “Stair­way to Heav­en” and “Tau­rus,” Randy Cal­i­for­ni­a’s 1968 song. The series comes to 19 cards in total, includ­ing such per­haps exces­sive­ly Zep­pelin-bor­rowed tunes as Bert Jan­sch’s “Black­wa­ter­side,” Ritchie Valens’ “Ohh, My Head,” Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” and Jake Holmes’ “Dazed and Con­fused.” The ques­tion of whether we can call Jim­my Page and Robert Plant reck­less music thieves or sim­ply artists mak­ing use of what came before — as all artists must — has no easy answer. I, for my part, can’t even imag­ine the legal drudgery required for a ver­dict in cas­es like this. Some­thing tells me that noth­ing as fun as trad­ing cards ever gets admit­ted as evi­dence.

LED ZEPPELIN “Stair­way To Heav­en” 1971

SPIRIT “Tau­rus” 1968

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Led Zep­pelin Plays One of Its Ear­li­est Con­certs (Dan­ish TV, 1969)

Whole Lot­ta Led Zep­pelin: Live at the Roy­al Albert Hall and The Song Remains the Same–the Full Shows

Decon­struct­ing Led Zeppelin’s Clas­sic Song ‘Ram­ble On’ Track by Track: Gui­tars, Bass, Drums & Vocals

Hear Led Zeppelin’s Mind-Blow­ing First Record­ed Con­cert Ever (1968)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • enzofloc says:

    Years ago, in a screen­writ­ing class, the instruc­tor urged us to ask our­selves, “Has it been told before (what has­n’t?), and if so, can you tell it bet­ter?” No one can deny Zep’s met­al-blaz­ing orig­i­nal­i­ty. Like all artists, they mined the pits for raw mate­r­i­al, but unlike most they take com­plete own­er­ship of every­thing they per­form. They are the author­i­ty. Think of how many groups Led Zep could sue for imper­son­at­ing them. From Van Halen to Kiss to Aero­smith to Guns and Ros­es. And none of them could do them any bet­ter.

  • Andy says:

    It’s not about “imper­son­ation,” it’s about Zep­pelin using the lyrics and melodies of oth­ers and then tak­ing the cred­it for writ­ing it them­selves. They’ve done it a lot and been sued many times for it.

  • Cynthia A Albrecht says:

    If an artist did­n’t write a song they should give cred­it to the writer. Plain an sim­ple. Be fair.

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