Frontmen of the legendary rock band Led Zeppelin were recently told they will have to face a U.S. jury to determine if their 1971 hit song “Stairway to Heaven” features stolen licks from another band.
U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner said in Los Angeles Friday that the opening chords to "Stairway" and the band Spirit’s 1967 instrumental "Taurus" are similar enough to warrant a jury decision on whether Zeppelin's lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page committed copyright infringement, Reuters reported.
The trial is scheduled for May 10.
British rock band Led Zeppelin pose in front of an their private airliner The Starship in 1973, from left: John Paul Jones, John Henry Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The complaint was filed by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for Spirit’s guitarist, the late Randy Wolfe, also referred to as “Randy California.”
According to the suit, Wolfe, who composed “Taurus,” complained about the songs’ similarities in an interview given shortly before he drowned in 1997 in the Pacific Ocean while attempting to save his son.
Skidmore suggested that Page may have gotten his inspiration for "Stairway" after hearing Spirit perform "Taurus" while the two bands toured together in 1968 and 1969. If this is true, Wolfe never got any credit.
The defendants claimed Wolfe had no copyright claim as the guitarist was a songwriter-for-hire. They also argued that the chord progressions were so conventional that they weren’t entitled to copyright protection.
But Judge Klausner said a jury would be able to recognize "substantial" similarity between the first two minutes of "Stairway" and "Taurus," which he said were "arguably the most recognizable and important segments" of the songs.
"While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure," Klausner wrote. "What remains is a subjective assessment of the 'concept and feel' of two works … a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury."
Klausner did, however, dismiss additional claims against Zeppelin’s bassist John Paul Jones and Warner Music Group Corp, adding that Skidmore will only be able to claim 50 percent of any damages awarded, citing a 1967 contract that Wolfe signed.
"This case, from our perspective, has always been about giving credit where credit was due, and now we get to right that wrong," Skidmore’s lawyer, Francis Malofiy, told Reuters.
A lawyer for Plant and Page did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
"Stairway to Heaven" is a track on Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth studio album. Listen to “Taurus” and "Stairway" here: