Led Zeppelin forced to go back to trial over 'Stairway to Heaven' theft claims
A federal appeals court in San Francisco has overturned a 2016 jury verdict, forcing Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to go back to trial over the 'Stairway to Heaven' copyright case.
Led Zeppelin must go back on trial in a lawsuit that accuses the rock legends of stealing the intro of 'Stairway to Heaven' from an obscure 1968 instrumental.
According to a report by NBC, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned a 2016 jury verdict in favor of the band, citing a series of errors by the trial judge.
The decision revives one of the music industry's most closely-watched copyright cases, potentially exposing Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page to millions of dollars of damages.
The lawsuit had been filed by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the songs of Randy Wolfe, better known as Randy California, a guitarist for the 70s band Spirit. Skidmore accused frontman Robert Plant and lead guitarist Jimmy Page (who are the co-writers of 'Stairway') of stealing the iconic opening chords of the chart-topping rock ballad from the Spirit song 'Taurus.'
Skidmore claimed that the songs had similar chord progressions, and that Page may have written 'Stairway' after hearing 'Taurus' while Led Zep and Spirit were touring together. Wolfe had reportedly complained in interviews about the songs' similarities but did not sue prior to his death by drowning in 1997.
Jurors in 2016 determined that while Plant and Page, who testified at the trial, had access to "'Taurus' the song's riff was not intrinsically similar to the opening of 'Stairway to Heaven.'" But in Friday's decision, Circuit Judge Richard Paez said the trial judge erred in failing to instruct jurors that the trustee could prevail if Wolfe had created a "sufficiently original combination of otherwise unprotectable music elements."
Paez also said the judge erred in instructing jurors about the copyrighting of music elements in the public domain, and should have let them listen to 'Taurus' while Page testified, to "assess his demeanor" and help determine whether he had access to the song.
"We do not dispute that Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands in history, but their plagiarism indelibly stains their legacy," Skidmore's lawyer Francis Malofiy said. “Led Zeppelin obviously copied 'Taurus' by Randy California, a musician they knew well," he added. Lawyers for the defendants had no immediate comment.
The representatives for Led Zep have pointed out earlier that Wolfe was a songwriter for hire who did not have a copyright claim, and that the opening of 'Stairway' — a descending chromatic four-chord progression — was a common musical convention that did not deserve copyright protection. Indeed, as several musically inclined fans have pointed out to defend their beloved rock gods, the nickname most commonly associated with the four-chord progression is the "Minor Cliche" and it's called that for good reason.
Jimmy Page's improvisation of the chords stands out from that of 'Taurus' as he squeezes in a few unconventional sharp 9th notes and ends the progression on D major instead of the conventional minor note. But where the lines meet or blur and whether the riff was inspired by 'Taurus' or composed wholly independently of it or god forbid will be determined by the court at the end of the retrial.
Meanwhile, listen to Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' and Spirit's 'Taurus' below and decide for yourself if one of the greatest rock ballads ever written is a rip-off or not.