How 'Stairway to Heaven' copyright case could alter the music industry

Arguments in the copyright suit suggesting Led Zeppelin copied the song's opening riff from a song by the band Spirit begin Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Rusty Kennedy/AP/File
Singer Robert Plant (l.) and guitarist Jimmy Page of the British rock band Led Zeppelin perform at the 1985 Live Aid concert at Philadelphia's J.F.K. Stadium. Starting Tuesday, a Los Angeles court will try to decide whether the members of Led Zeppelin themselves ripped off the riff in 'Stairway to Heaven' from the band Spirit.

Members of the band Led Zeppelin are heading to court Tuesday to try to fight off a copyright suit suggesting they borrowed the iconic opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven” from another band.

Guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant have been named as defendants in a suit brought by a trustee for Randy Wolfe, guitarist for the band Spirit, who contends that Led Zeppelin copied the distinctive opening of “Stairway to Heaven” from a Spirit song called “Taurus." Bandmate John Paul Jones was dropped as a defendant in the suit, but he is expected to testify.

The case could be a game changer for the music industry, which has historically relied on the ability of musicians to borrow from and build upon each other's work. The decision could change the way songwriters draw inspiration from their predecessors.

Led Zeppelin has settled similar copyright suits in the past, while musicians and fans have long speculated about similarities between the two songs. But the case is moving forward in the wake of a significant decision last year that the 2013 Robin Thicke hit “Blurred Lines” borrowed elements from Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.”

A Los Angeles jury initially awarded Mr. Gaye’s family $7.4 million, with a judge later scaling back the amount. That decision is on appeal, but it has sparked a raft of similar copyright suits, potentially raising questions about whether such decisions make it more difficult for songwriters to craft hits of their own.

In the case of “Stairway to Heaven,” the two bands toured together in the late 1960s, though not on the same stage, while Mr. Wolfe wrote “Taurus” in 1966 or 1967. He died in 1997, after saving his son from drowning in Hawaii. He had discussed the song’s disputed origins, but also at one point suggested, “I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of ‘Taurus’ for their song without a lawsuit.”

The suit, filed by trustee Michael Skidmore, has moved forward thanks to a Los Angeles judge’s ruling in April that evidence presented made a credible case that Led Zeppelin may have heard Spirit perform “Taurus” before writing “Stairway to Heaven.”

“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 R. Gary Klausner of the Central District of California, saying there were “substantial” similarities between the two songs.

Attorneys for Led Zeppelin have argued that both songs use notes and chord progressions that have been present in music for centuries, while attorneys for Wolfe overcame the statute of limitations to sue over the song’s authorship because “Stairway to Heaven” was remastered and re-released in 2014.

Francis Alexander Malofiy, the attorney for the Spirit guitarist's trustee, Mr. Skidmore, told the Associated Press that copyright cases are traditionally hard-fought and difficult to prove. But Judge Klausner’s ruling in April brought his client one step closer to helping Wolfe receive credit for creating one of the most recognizable rock songs in history.

But the blurred line between influence and plagiarism can become sharper because of distinctions between borrowing a standard chord progression or lifting a melody completely from another song, Bonnie Hayes, a songwriter who chairs the Songwriting Department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, told the Christian Science Monitor in 2014.

“The Led Zeppelin melody is much more distinct … it has a tight counter melody which isn’t present in the Spirit one and that counter melody is what I think is defining in the Led Zeppelin piece,” she told the Monitor.

Noting that the chord progression of “Stairway to Heaven” is also a standard arpeggio form found in the 1937 song “My Funny Valentine," Professor Hayes says, “My feeling is that they are not similar enough to make a claim like that.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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