“Stairway to Heaven” in Copyright Infringement Trial

“Stairway to Heaven” in Copyright Infringement Trial
A commemorative stamp featuring artwork from Led Zeppelin's "IV" album

A commemorative stamp featuring artwork from Led Zeppelin’s “IV” album

The infamous opening riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (“Stairway”) – played ad nauseum by budding guitarists around the world – will soon be the subject of intense scrutiny in a copyright trial slated for 10 May. It turns out that the plucked intro of “the greatest rock song of all time” may have been lifted from an instrumental track, “Taurus”, released by the band, Spirit, in 1967.

The lawsuit is being brought by the Plaintiff Michael Skidmore in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, who is the administrator of the trust of the late Randy Wolfe, who was Spirit’s guitarist and the composer of “Taurus”. Skidmore alleges that Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page may have been inspired to write “Stairway” sometime after both bands had toured together between 1969 and 1969.

Listening to both “Taurus” and “Stairway”, one might be inclined to agree with Skidmore’s assertion. However, Led Zeppelin have scored a number of pre-trial victories that have made the Plaintiff’s battle an uphill task.

Perhaps most importantly, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner has restricted the “Taurus” sound recordings in dispute to what was deposited with the U.S Copyright Office in 1967 – the only recordings of “Taurus” presented to the jury’s ears will therefore be the ones transcribed from the copyrighted sheet music. Furthermore, the judge has rejected all of the Plaintiff’s expert evidence, as these were musicologist reports that relied on unprotected versions of “Taurus”.

What’s more, the judge has also barred evidence being tendered by the Plaintiff on a number of subjects that have been deemed irrelevant, including allegations of Led Zeppelin’s history of plagiarism, the wealth of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and the band members’ history of drug and alcohol abuse – the latter issue being a point raised by the Plaintiffs to cast doubt on Page’s recollection that he never heard “Taurus” when composing “Stairway”.

The Plaintiff claims that the “most important thing is to give credit where credit is due”. However, given the immense popularity and ubiquity of the song, the Plaintiff could also stand to win a tidy sum from future royalties, if he is successful in this lawsuit. The case is Skidmore v Led Zeppelin et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 15-03462.