Even though Led Zeppelin first released their song “Stairway to Heaven” in 1971, the copyright infringement civil trial that was filed in 2014 began only last week, and it centers around claims that part of “Stairway” was stolen from the song “Taurus,” which was released by the band Spirit on their debut album of the same name in 1968. So why is the trial happening four decades later?
He Said, They Said
There are only so many musical notes in an octave (eight), and only so many ways they can be put together, but once in a while, a musical “aha” occurs and a song becomes a hit. That’s what happened to the band Led Zeppelin when they released their album Led Zeppelin IV in 1971 with the song “Stairway to Heaven” on it. The song became “one of the genre’s most enduring and commercially successful songs,” EW says.
Part of the reason for the song’s success is the “riff“—”a short series of chords”—that seems to be present in both songs and occurs after about a minute into “Taurus.” That riff is the center of the whole case. The lawsuit, brought by Michael Skidmore, the trustee of Spirit’s former guitarist Randy Wolfe who died in 1997, claims the riff was stolen from “Taurus,” an instrumental (a song with no lyrics) released in 1968 and allegedly used in “Stairway to Heaven.”
This is not the first time this claim has been made, both about the song “Stairway to Heaven” and about other songs performed and released by Led Zeppelin, and about other bands over the decades. Evidently, borrowing and “cross-pollination” were commonplace. Additionally, Randy Wolfe had brought up the similarities when the album Spirit was re-released.
The trustee, Skidmore, testified he did not have time to pursue the matter then because he was too busy working two jobs, did not have enough money, and he thought the statute of limitations had run out. It had, in fact, run out, but because Zeppelin re-released an album in 2014 with “Stairway to Heaven” on it, the statute could begin running again.
The case has come this far because the judge hearing preliminary evidence, U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner, believed there was enough evidence of a similarity between the two songs to raise questions about the validity of the claim. However, in order to have legal ramifications in accordance with U.S. copyright law, the lawyer for Spirit must prove two things: that Zeppelin intentionally copied “Taurus” in order to make something “substantially similar” and that Zeppelin had access to the song, meaning they had heard, or could have heard, it at some point before they released “Stairway.”
Jimmy Page, guitarist for Led Zeppelin, and singer Robert Plant, both testified last week saying they did not remember hearing Spirit perform 45 years ago (which is the “access” part of the legalities). Both men have appeared in the Los Angeles courtroom every day for the trial. Although the attorney for Spirit tried his hardest to get them to admit it, both Plant and Page stood firm that they did not recall hearing the band perform, or a rendition of “Taurus.”
Plant also reminded the court that he and his wife had been in a bad car accident in 1970, the same night the attorney was saying they would have heard Spirit perform at a club, and both Plant and his wife sustained serious head injuries. He said he did not remember a thing. “I don’t have a recollection of mostly anyone I’ve met.”
Depending on the outcome of the “Stairway” trial, the band could be ordered to give partial or full credit to Spirit, which they have done and been required to do to other bands in the past, several times. It could also lead to a reallocation of royalties, which is another sticking point.
When it was his turn, one of Led Zeppelin’s accountants testified that he estimated “Stairway to Heaven” had brought in approximately $615,000 in royalties since 2011 for Page, and $532,000 for Plant, before taxes. When Spirit’s attorney, Francis Malofiy, put up his expert to testify, the testimony estimated royalties in the millions. That is a wide gulf.
Judge Klausner has not seemed too impressed thus far with Malofiy, who earned himself “more than 50 sustained objections” during one day in court, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Attorneys for Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and Warner Music filed a motion Monday urging Judge Klausner to halt proceedings because the plaintiff had not met the burden of proof or “established the elements of copyright infringement.”
The judge had yet to rule on the motion Tuesday, but the jury has apparently been sent to deliberate, so the outcome of the “Stairway to Heaven” trial is still uncertain, as is the future of copyright law cases, Rolling Stone examined.
*Update: Led Zeppelin has won the “Stairway to Heaven” trial, Billboard reported. After the jury listened to both songs one last time, it took them only “a half hour” to make up its mind that the copyright to “Taurus” belonged to Spirit, and that “Stairway to Heaven” belongs to Led Zeppelin.
[Photo by Danny Martindale/Getty Images]