A U.S. jury will decide whether the opening section of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” — one of the most famous passages in rock music — was lifted from a lesser-known U.S. band.
Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page, the hit song’s composers, will face a copyright trial after a U.S. district judge in Los Angeles ruled Friday that the plaintiff had made a strong enough case in its claim of copyright infringement to send the matter to a jury.
The lawsuit was brought by a trustee for the estate of the late Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California — a songwriting member of the American rock group Spirit.
The suit claims that the arpeggiated guitar introduction to “Stairway to Heaven” — widely viewed as one of the all-time great classic rock songs since its release in 1971 — infringed on the copyright of the instrumental “Taurus,” released on Spirit’s debut album three years earlier.
“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,” Judge Gary Klausner wrote in his 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.”
The suit, filed by Wolfe’s trustee Michael Skidmore, claims Page may have drawn inspiration for the smash hit after hearing Spirit perform their song at three U.S. festival performances at which both bands appeared prior to the release of Led Zeppelin’s track.
The judgment notes that Page said he had never seen a Spirit performance.
Citing a 1967 contract signed by Wolfe, the judge also said the trustee could only receive 50% of any damages that may be awarded.
Jason Elzy, vice president at Rhino Entertainment, Led Zeppelin’s publicists, said there was no comment on the case from the British rock legends.
In a 2014 interview with France’s Liberation newspaper, Page called the claims “ridiculous.”