Jun 16, 2016

Stairway to Heaven or Hell for Led Zeppelin?

Members of Led Zeppelin have appeared in court in the US to deny copying another song in their hit song 'Stairway To Heaven'. Background Zeppelin band members, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, are being sued by a trust acting for a founding member of Spirit who died in 1997 with the trial scheduled to last four or five days.  The trial is sure to generate a great deal of publicity given the high profile of the stars involved which was confirmed by the fact that on the first day in the corridor to the courtroom many fans of the band queued so that they could watch proceedings. The band is accused of copying the opening notes of their hit song Stairway to Heaven from 'Taurus' a 1967 track by the band Spirit.  Taurus is a two minute and 37 second instrumental with a distinct plucked guitar line and was released in January 1968, three years before Stairway to Heaven appeared on Zeppelin's untitled fourth album.

Opening

The case began with various performances of both songs being played in court.  In his opening statement, the lawyer for the trust, Francis Malofiy, said that the case could be summed up in six words, "...give credit where credit is due".

The band's lawyer, Robert Anderson, insisted that Plant and Page created Stairway to Heaven independently without copying anything in Taurus.  He added that there was no proof that they had even heard Taurus until decades after creating Stairway to Heaven.

Anderson also claimed that the sequence of notes in the opening bars was a "descending chromatic line…something that appears in all kinds of songs."  He argued that such a "commonplace" musical device which "goes back centuries," was not protected by copyright and was not actually owned by the claimant.

Earlier Hearing

At an earlier hearing, a US district judge ruled that the pieces of music were similar enough that a jury should decide whether Page and Plant had infringed the copyright of Spirit in their song Taurus.

The action is being taken by a trust set up to manage the legacy of guitarist Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, a founding member of Spirit.  Mr Wolfe died in 1997 while saving his son from drowning.

Lawyers for Wolfe say Stairway To Heaven was written after hearing their client play Taurus and that he should be given a writing credit.

The counter argument of Page and Plant is that the song written in a remote cottage in Wales and is their masterpiece.

The trust is reported to be seeking royalties and other compensation of around $40m (£28m) and following the jury decision in the Blurred Line case (reported in our articles available here) it is perhaps unsurprising that Plant and Page cancelled shows to attend the trial.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Stairway To Heaven had earned $562m (£334m) as of 2008 making it one of the most profitable in history.  What made the song so profitable was due, in part, to the fact that it was not released as a single, forcing fans to purchase the album.

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