Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin copyright case cleared for trial

A trial is needed to determine if Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven copies its opening notes from a song performed by the rock band Spirit, a federal judge has ruled.

At issue is whether 1971's Stairway to Heaven copies a section from late 1960s track Taurus

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, left, and singer Robert Plant pose for photos in 2012 in New York. A U.S. federal judge has ruled that a copyright infringement lawsuit over the Led Zeppelin classic Stairway to Heaven can proceed to trial. (Evan Agostini/Invision/Associated Press)

A trial is needed to determine if Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven copies its opening notes from a song performed by the rock band Spirit, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled Friday that lawyers for the trustee of late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe had shown enough evidence to support a case that Stairway to Heaven copies music from the instrumental Spirit track Taurus.

Taurus was written by Wolfe (who used the stage name Randy California, given to him by Jimi Hendrix) in either 1966 or 1967, years before Led Zeppelin released Stairway to Heaven in 1971. Klausner wrote that while the songs have some differences, lawyers for Wolfe's trustee may be able to prove they are substantially similar.

Led Zeppelin and Spirit performed at some concerts and festivals around the same time, but not on the same stage. Klausner wrote that the evidence presented so far represented a circumstantial case that Led Zeppelin may have heard Taurus performed before Stairway to Heaven was created.

In an interview published after his death in early 1997, Wolfe pointed out the similarities in the two songs.

"The guys made millions of bucks on [Stairway to Heaven] and never said 'Thank you,' never said, 'Can we pay you some money for it?'" he told Listener, an audiophile magazine.

"It's kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it."

Wolfe had never previously launched a legal challenge against Led Zeppelin over Stairway to Heaven due to lack of funds. 

After-hours phone and email messages sent to Helene M. Freeman, Led Zeppelin's attorney, were not immediately returned. Experts hired by the band contend both Stairway to Heaven and Taurus use notes that have been used in music for centuries.

Francis Alexander Malofiy, attorney for Wolfe's trustee Michael Skidmore, praised the ruling. He said while many copyright cases are an uphill battle, Klausner's ruling brings his client one step closer to getting Wolfe credit for helping create one of the most recognizable song introductions in rock history.

John Paul Jones (from left), John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin are seen in 1973. The group performed at some concerts and festivals around the same time as the American rock band Spirit in the late 1960s. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Page and Plant remain defendants

Skidmore was able to overcome statute-of-limitations hurdles to sue over Stairway to Heaven because the song was remastered and re-released in 2014.

A jury trial is scheduled for May 10 in Los Angeles. Klausner's ruling removed Zeppelin band member John Paul Jones from the case. Bandmates Robert Plant and Jimmy Page remain defendants in the case.

A trial would represent the third time in recent months that a Los Angeles federal jury has heard a copyright-infringement case involving a hit song.

In March 2015, a jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had copied a Marvin Gaye song to create their 2013 hit, Blurred Lines and awarded Gaye's children $7.4 million US. A judge trimmed the award, and the verdict is under appeal.

Later in the year, another jury was empaneled to determine whether the Jay-Z hit Big Pimpin' copied the work of an Egyptian composer, but a judge ruled in the rapper's favour before deliberations began.

With files from CBC News