Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Copyright Case Could Result In Reallocated Royalties

The surviving members of Led Zeppelin reunited in a Los Angeles courtroom last week, on June 17, for their “Stairway to Heaven” copyright trial. The lawsuit claims the band ripped off a riff from the instrumental “Taurus” by the classic rock group Spirit. Billboard reports that the estate for Spirit’s late guitarist Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, claims Led Zeppelin incorporated the riff in the well-known introduction to “Stairway.”

The infringement suit was filed in 2014 by Michael Skidmore, who is a trustee for Randy. The lawsuit alleges that Spirit shared a bill with Zeppelin three times between 1968 and 1970, giving the legendary British rockers multiple opportunities to have heard “Taurus” before releasing the album Led Zeppelin IV in late 1971, which included “Stairway to Heaven.”

But do the two songs really sound the same? Have a listen to both tracks via the YouTube players below, and you decide.

U.S. district judge Gary Klausner explained why he agreed to take the case to trial, saying, “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. 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.”

During testimony, Kevin Hanson, a guitar instructor and former member of Huffamoose, played passages from both songs on acoustic guitar and concluded that they are identical.

“To my ear, they sound like they are one piece of music,” he said.

Prior to his death in 1997, Wolfe pointed out the similarities between “Taurus” and “Stairway,” but the dispute hasn’t been settled sooner because Skidmore, who helped Wolfe’s mother run his estate before she died, didn’t have enough time, money, or resources to battle Led Zeppelin in court.

“I don’t have the resources and barely have the time to do the trust stuff and hold down two jobs,” Skidmore told Bloomberg in 2014. “It’s like a hobby. Nobody had any money, and they thought the statute of limitations was done.”

When Page took the witness stand, he explained that while he recalled purchasing a few Spirit albums, he never heard “Taurus” until years after the releases of “Stairway to Heaven.” Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones testified that bandmate Jimmy Page never revealed he owned five Spirit albums. Page also blasted Spirit’s argument that his band ripped off “Stairway” after hearing it during a concert the two bands performed at on December 26, 1969, in Denver. Page claims Led Zeppelin left to play another gig in another state before Spirit took the stage, reports Entertainment Weekly.

The publication also notes that the band’s defense team brought in New York University musicologist Lawrence Ferrara, who testified that “Stairway to Heaven” has no similarities with “Taurus” because both tracks employ a common “descending chromatic line” device, which has been used in music composition for years.

“They are a musical building block that no one can possibly own,” Ferrara said.

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”continues to generate a fortune for songwriters Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. The track generated revenues of nearly $60 million over the past five years, economist Michael Einhorn testified. If Randy Wolfe’s estate is successful, it could result in an update in song credits and reallocated royalties.

[Photo by Evan Agostini/AP Images)