Led Zeppelin To Face Jury Trial In Copyright Suit Over “Stairway To Heaven”
Apr. 12, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — A Los Angeles district court has ruled that the founders of Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, will face a jury trial to decide whether their legendary song “Stairway To Heaven” infringes on the copyright of a band called Spirit. The trial date has been set for May 10.
The action was brought by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the estate of the late guitarist and founder of the band Spirit, Randy Craig Wolfe. Skidmore claims the opening notes of the song are largely similar to the 2 and a half minute instrumental track “Taurus” on Spirit’s self-titled debut album. He believes Wolfe should have been credited as a writer and is suing for damages.
“Stairway To Heaven” was released in 1971 and is easily one of the most popular rock songs of all time. The story goes that Plant and Page wrote the song in a remote cottage in Wales in 1970/71, whereas “Taurus” was written by Wolfe sometime between 1966 and 1967. Skidmore is claiming that Plant and Page would have heard the track whilst on tour with Spirit in the late 60s. Wolfe had also complained of the similarities in an interview before his untimely death in 1997, where he drowned whilst attempting to rescue his son in the Pacific Ocean. A comparison of the songs can be heard here.
LA Judge Klausner held that there was substantial similarity with the opening 2 minutes of the Led Zeppelin track and “Taurus”, finding that:
“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,” U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner of the Central District of California wrote in a 20-page opinion denying, in part, Led Zeppelin’s motion for summary judgment. “For example, the descending bass line in both Taurus and Stairway to Heaven appears at the beginning of both songs, arguably the most recognizable and important segments. … Additionally, the descending bass line is played at the same pitch, repeated twice, and separated by a short bridge in both songs.” Citing another opinion, he added: “Enough similar protectable expression is here that the issue of substantial similarity should [proceed to the jury].”
Klausner also dismissed claims brought against Warner Music Group Corp and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and ruled that Skidmore could only recover 50% of damages awarded following a contract that Wolfe signed in 1967.
It will be interesting to see for whom the jury rule, as the current trend for California juries is to find in favor of the claimant – as seen in the hefty award of $5 million in damages in the case of the estate of Marvin Gaye vs Pharrell, Robin Thicke and T.I. last year.