‘Stairway to Heaven’ plagiarism trial underway
LOS ANGELES, United States — Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant appeared in court Tuesday to defend “Stairway to Heaven,” one of the most iconic songs in rock history, from accusations of plagiarism.
The two artists, dressed in black suits, arrived to a throng of reporters at Los Angeles federal court, where a jury of four men and four women was selected ahead of opening arguments in the high-profile case.
Spirit, a psychedelic band from Los Angeles that enjoyed a niche following but never attained the superstardom of Zeppelin, claims the iconic melancholic guitar riff that opens “Stairway to Heaven” was lifted from its instrumental track “Taurus.”
Spirit’s guitarist Randy Wolfe — who went by the nickname Randy California — never took legal action and died in 1997, but a lawsuit was filed by his trustee Michael Skidmore, who was present in court Tuesday.
“It’s going to be a short trial. No foreplay. In and out,” said Skidmore’a attorney, Francis Malofiy.
Attorneys on both sides said they expect the trial to last about five days.
In a magazine interview just before his death, California said it was clear when one listens to the two songs that “Stairway to Heaven” was a “rip-off.”
“And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me,” he said in the interview, quoted in the lawsuit.
After two years of legal proceedings, a judge stopped short of agreeing that the song was copied, but said there was enough of a case for a jury trial in Los Angeles.
Spirit’s representative “failed to proffer evidence of striking similarity, but he has successfully created a triable issue of fact as to access and substantial similarity,” US District Court Judge Gary Klausner said in a ruling in May.
The judge said the two sides had “vehemently contested” the question of whether Led Zeppelin had access to 1967’s “Taurus” before recording “Stairway to Heaven” in London in December 1970 and January 1971.
Led Zeppelin was the opening act for Spirit when the hard British rockers — Plant, Page, John Paul Jones and the since deceased John Bonham — made their US debut on December 26, 1968 in Denver.
But surviving members of Led Zeppelin submitted testimony to the court that they never had substantive interaction with Spirit or listened to the band’s music.
Led Zeppelin argued that the opening of “Stairway to Heaven” — a descending sequence mostly in the A minor key — had been used in music for centuries and that the lawsuit ignored the rest of the song, which builds over eight minutes.
The judge disagreed, writing that the two songs had additional similarities, including the bass line.
Skidmore has not specified the total in damages he is seeking, but various stories in the music press have posited a possible settlement at anywhere between a symbolic $1 plus a writing credit to as much as $40 million.
The lawsuit, originally filed in Pennsylvania, speaks of Led Zeppelin’s “deep-rooted history of lifting composition from blues artists and other songwriters who they have repeatedly failed to credit.”
It lists disputes over 16 other Led Zeppelin songs, many of which were settled by giving the complainant a songwriting credit and royalties, including classics “Whole Lotta Love” and “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.”
“Randy California deserves writing credit for ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and to take his place as an author of rock’s greatest song,” the lawsuit asserts.
The case comes amid a rise in such copyright hearings, with the family of Marvin Gaye last year controversially winning more than $7 million from a jury over the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.