Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is a touchstone for beginning guitarists, so ubiquitous that it has sparked debates about whether the song is overplayed.
But now a California jury must consider a thornier question – are parts of the song borrowed from another song written four years earlier by the less well-known band Taurus?
After US District Judge Gary Klausner ruled on Friday that a jury could find “substantial” similarities between the opening minutes of “Stairway to Heaven” and Spirit’s 1967 instrumental “Taurus,” a jury must decide whether Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page would be liable for copyright infringement.
“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,” wrote Judge Klausner of the Central District of California.
On May 10, jurors will begin considering a lawsuit filed by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for Randy Wolfe, Spirit’s guitarist, who wrote “Taurus.”
Rumors about similarities between the two songs – strengthened by the fact the two bands toured together in 1968 and 1969 – have reverberated for years. But the lawsuit alleges directly that Mr. Page may have been inspired to write “Stairway to Heaven” after hearing Spirit perform during those shared bills.
As a slew of revelations have come out of the case – Page said last year he had a copy of “Taurus” in his record collection but he’d never heard it until 2014 – the defendants have attempted to dismiss the lawsuit.
They argue that Spirit’s Mr. Wolfe was working as a songwriter-for-hire for his record label and that the song's chord progressions were clichéd enough that they didn’t warrant copyright protection.
In the past, Led Zeppelin has quietly settled copyright infringement suits with several American blues musicians. But, as with a high-profile suit over the song “Blurred Lines” where a California jury awarded $7.3 million (later reduced to $5.2 million) to the family of Marvin Gaye, the case may point to an ongoing question – what really makes a song “original?”
In the case of “Blurred Lines,” songwriters Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. argued that they had drawn inspiration from Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give Up” in an attempt to “evoke an era” in their song, but that they had not directly copied it.
Debates over sampling and creative inspiration have also expanded into court cases that don’t directly involve music. In September, a federal court cited a landmark Supreme Court decision in favor of the 1990s rap group 2 Live Crew’s right to “transformative fair use” when it ruled in favor of Google Books against a group of authors.
In 1991, Wolfe, the Spirit guitarist, said, “I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of ‘Taurus’ for their song without a lawsuit,” though the judge noted that didn’t mean Wolfe had abandoned his claim against the band before his death in 1997.
“This case, from our perspective, has always been about giving credit where credit was due, and now we get to right that wrong,” Francis Malofiy, a lawyer for Skidmore, the trustee, told Reuters.
In his ruling, Judge Klausner said that Skidmore could only receive 50 percent of any damages that are awarded because of a contract Wolfe signed with his record label in 1967.
He also dismissed the suit’s claims against Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Warner Music Group, but denied the group’s efforts to get the suit thrown out altogether.
“What remains is a subjective assessment of the ‘concept and feel’ of two works,” he wrote, “a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury.”