A U.S. judge has sent a copyright infringement case involving "Stairway to Heaven" to a jury
The plaintiff claims the track's famous opening borrows from a song by U.S. band Spirit
The lawsuit is the latest in a string of cases of alleged copyright infringement of hit songs
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.
Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’:
“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.”
When songwriters go to court
It’s not the first time the courts have been called upon to settle an accusation of musical theft.
No, really – give it up: Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams didn’t just blur the lines, they crossed them, a California jury ruled last year.
Tom Petty stands his ground: British pop sensation Sam Smith’s 2014 tune “Stay With Me” has a riff in the chorus similar to that of the 1989 Tom Petty hit “I Won’t Back Down.” Reports say the two settled out of court, and the official credits now list Petty as a co-writer of the Smith song. Petty says there are no hard feelings.
Sam Smith’s song:
Who ya gonna call? My lawyer! The 1980s rocker Huey Lewis accused Ray Parker Jr. of copying a “Ghostbusters” song riff from the 1984 hit “I Want a New Drug” by his band, Huey Lewis and the News. Reports at the time said they settled and signed a confidentiality agreement. In 2001, Parker accused Lewis of breaking it in a televised interview.
The movie theme song:
Huey Lewis and the News:
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the flute riff? Australian band Men at Work lost a case that all but accused them of stealing from children. A court found that the flute solo in their global hit “Down Under” had plagiarized the children’s tune “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree,” written for the Scouting organization the Girl Guides. (It was the publisher of the song, Larkin Music, that sued. Marion Sinclair, who wrote “Kookaburra” in 1934, died in 1988.)
Men at Work:
The children’s song:
Yes, there’s a problem. Vanilla Ice hit it big for the first and only time with “Ice Ice Baby” in 1990, rapping over a catchy bass riff that sounded suspiciously like the one in the Queen and David Bowie hit “Under Pressure.” Reports at the time said a lawsuit was settled out of court.
Queen and David Bowie’s tune:
Not free to do whatever you want. Some fans of the Beatles spoof band the Rutles noticed what they thought were similarities between the Oasis hit “Whatever” and the Neil Innes tune “How Sweet to be an Idiot.” Headlines suggested that Innes was going to sue Oasis, but in a 2013 interview, the songwriter said it was the music publisher EMI that took action and settled out of court, giving a quarter of the monies from “Whatever” to Innes and a quarter to EMI. Innes later winked at the incident in the opening notes of the song “Shangri-La.”
Neil Innes, 14 years earlier:
If everybody had their own tune: There’s some controversy about how the Beach Boys’ first big hit, “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” came to be written, since the melody seems to be lifted straight from the Chuck Berry single “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It’s listed now as having been written by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and Berry. On his website, Berry calls “Surfin’ U.S.A.” a cover of his tune.
The Beach Boys:
Not so fine: One of the most famous copyright disputes in music history targeted former Beatle George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord,” which was found to have copied “He’s So Fine” by the girl group the Chiffons. Harrison was ordered to pay nearly $2 million and was quoted as saying he never made any money off the song – but he struck back with “This Song,” a hit about the incident. It included the line: “As far as I know, it don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright.”
The song that got Harrison sued:
And Harrison’s song about the dispute:
CNN’s Tony Marco contributed to this report.