Stairway to Court: Led Zeppelin on Trial for Copyright Infringement

A colour photograph of Led Zeppelin's lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page. Credit: Wikipedia

A colour photograph of Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page. Credit: Wikipedia

Led Zeppelin has gone on trial in Los Angeles for copyright infringement over their iconic 1971 song ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

The lawsuit alleges that the British band lifted the opening chords of ‘Stairway’ – considered one of the most popular rock compositions in history – from the instrumental number ‘Taurus’, released three years earlier by American band Spirit.

Michael Skidmore, trustee of the late Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, Spirit’s guitarist and composer of ‘Taurus’, filed the plagiarism complaint.

Two of Led Zeppelin’s founder members, singer Robert Plant, now 72, and guitarist Jimmy Page, 67, testified. They said that the opening chords are not unique. In his opening arguments at the Los Angeles federal court, defence attorney Peter Anderson said: “No one owns common musical elements.”

In 1968 and 1969, Led Zeppelin and Taurus toured together. Skidmore said that hearing Spirit perform ‘Taurus’ in Denver may have inspired Page to write ‘Stairway’, but Wolfe never received credit. Plant and Page said that although the bands toured together, they had very little interaction.

Andersen said his side would show that neither Skidmore nor Wolfe’s trust own the copyright to ‘Taurus’.

The final decision of whether ‘substantial’ similarity exists between the first two minutes of ‘Stairway’ and ‘Taurus’ and whether Led Zeppelin is guilty of plagiarism will be up to the jury, said US district court judge R. Gary Klausner. The jury was finalised on June 14, after seven of the first 14 possible jurors were dismissed.

Janet Wolfe, Randy California’s sister, was the first to testify, and said that her brother had written the song for his wife Robin. She also said that the issue had “upset him for many, many years”.