Led Zeppelin face copyright trial over Stairway To Heaven

LOS ANGELES • The song is not quite the same, but the opening of Stairway To Heaven is close enough to an obscure 1967 album track to warrant a trial that might rewrite the history of rock 'n' roll over a song-writing credit.

Led Zeppelin's founders Robert Plant, 67, and Jimmy Page, 72, must face a United States jury trial over whether they stole opening chords for their 1971 classic Stairway To Heaven. In a decision last Friday, United States District Judge Gary Klausner in Los Angeles said Stairway and the 1967 instrumental Taurus by the band Spirit are similar enough to let a jury decide whether Plant and Page are liable for copyright infringement.

A trial is scheduled for May 10.

The lawsuit was brought in 2014, on behalf of the late Randy California, Spirit's guitarist and the composer of Taurus. A trust created by his mother and administered by a former rock journalist alleged in the complaint that Page lifted the opening guitar plucks in Stairway from an instrumental that California had written in 1966 for his girlfriend. According to trustee Michael Skidmore, Page asked California to teach him the chords to Taurus in 1969, when the two groups would sometimes tour together.

Page, Plant, Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Warner Music Group asked Judge Klausner last February to throw out Skidmore's lawsuit, arguing that California was a songwriter-for-hire who did not own the copyright to his composition. Even if he did, they argued, the similarity between Stairway and Taurus is limited to a "descending chromatic scale of pitches" that has been known for centuries and is too commonplace in music to be entitled to copyright protection.

But the judge said a jury could find "substantial" similarity between the first two minutes of Stairway and Taurus, which he called "arguably the most recognisable and important segments" of the songs.

"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," he wrote. "What remains is a subjective assessment of the 'concept and feel' of two works... a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury."

According to the complaint, California complained about the similarities of the songs in an interview before he drowned in 1997 in the Pacific Ocean while trying to rescue his son.

Stairway is one of the most successful rock songs of all time, having earned hundreds of millions of dollars. Since Led Zeppelin's first album in 1969, the band were known to have drawn inspiration from other musicians, some of whom brought legal challenges years later. As a result, the band have been forced to alter credits and redirect portions of royalties for some of their biggest hits, such as Babe I'm Gonna Leave You and Whole Lotta Love.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2016, with the headline 'Led Zeppelin face copyright trial over Stairway To Heaven'. Print Edition | Subscribe