Did Led Zeppelin Steal ‘Stairway to Heaven’? A Jury Will Decide

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Led Zeppelin performed at Madison Square Garden in 1975. Credit Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

The Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” is one of the most ubiquitous (some might say overplayed) songs on classic rock radio. Next month, a jury will decide whether the song’s opening was stolen from another band.

A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled that it will be up to the jurors to determine whether the song stole elements of “Taurus,” a track from the band Spirit.

A United States district judge, Gary R. Klausner, wrote in the decision Friday that while the chromatic four-chord backbone shared by the songs was “a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure.”

A trustee for Spirit’s guitarist, Randy Wolfe, brought the suit against the surviving members of Led Zeppelin in 2014. Mr. Wolfe died in 1997.

The trial, scheduled for May 10, would be the second high-profile jury trial to determine the similarity between two songs in two years, a trend industry experts say may open the gates to more suits.

A federal jury in Los Angeles in March awarded more than $7.3 million to the family of the R&B icon Marvin Gaye after finding that the Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams hit “Blurred Lines” had copied elements of Mr. Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.”

Howard E. King, a lawyer for Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams in that case, said that since that ruling, there were a lot more cases being brought and the Led Zeppelin case “would be completely unpredictable going to a jury.”

“I’m quite sure that the defendants in the case want to settle now, and do not want to face a jury,” he said. He added that he was “equally sure that the plaintiffs are emboldened, because if they get to go play this music to a jury, they’ve got a fighting chance of ending up partially owning one of the most seminal songs of all time.”

Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven (Music-Lyrics) Video by Sergiuddd

Before Mr. Wolfe died, he was interviewed years earlier about the similarity between the two songs, according to court documents. He said that he had been friendly with the members of Led Zeppelin, and that if they wanted to take his song, “that’s fine.”

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In the same interview, he added that he would allow the band to “have the beginning of ‘Taurus’ for their song without a lawsuit.”

Taurus- Spirit Video by TheSoundtrackBeast

Lawyers for the trustee, Michael Skidmore, argued that “the tenor of the interview” indicated that Mr. Wolfe “felt cheated by Led Zeppelin and was merely trying to save face and make light of a bad situation.”

Led Zeppelin has a long history of being sued and accused of being a little too enamored with the work of other artists, including the folk singer Anne Bredon and the blues song
writer Willie Dixon. Both musicians found success against the band in court.

“Stairway to Heaven” was recorded between December 1970 and January 1971, and was first performed in March 1971, according to court documents. Before that, Led Zeppelin and Spirit toured the same venues and played on the same days at least three times, the documents said.

But the members of Led Zeppelin said that “they never toured with, shared a stage with or listened to any of Spirit’s music during these brief encounters,” according to the court documents.

The members of Spirit recalled things differently, however, asserting that they had talked with members of Led Zeppelin backstage and that the bands had performed one after the other at two festivals.

Lawyers for Mr. Skidmore also presented a quote from an interview that the Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page gave in 1970.

“Spirit do some really nice things on albums,” he was quoted as saying. “They give a really nice atmosphere when they play, and I always enjoy seeing them.”

The federal judge in Los Angeles, however, dismissed the quote as hearsay.

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