Rock powerhouse Led Zeppelin triumphed in its defense of the originality of “Stairway to Heaven,” as a Los Angeles jury found the band did not rip off the song’s opening theme.
Led Zeppelin, whose songwriting ethics have been called into question over the decades, scored a victory when it counted, as millions of dollars were at stake in the copyright case brought by a trustee for the estate of Spirit’s guitarist Randy California.
The song in question was Spirit’s instrumental “Taurus,” an atmospheric 3-minute instrumental on Spirit’s debut album, released in 1968. It is mostly known to Spirit fans. The global hit “Stairway to Heaven” debuted on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, in 1971.
“We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and confirming what we have known for 45 years,” Jimmy Page and Robert Plant said after the June 23 verdict.
“We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”
The plaintiff’s attorney said the case was lost on a technicality and indicated that an appeal was likely.
The suit alleged that defendants singer Plant and guitarist Page copped the opening finger-picked section of “Taurus,” which was recorded in 1967. (Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and the band’s distributor Warner Music were dropped from the case in the April.)
The lawsuit was filed in May 2014, although the songs’ similarities have long been debated. There were statute of limitations issues in the dispute, but California’s estate hitched its complaint to the 2014 reissue of Led Zeppelin’s album.
California, also known as Randy Wolfe, drowned in Hawaii in 1997.
Spirit and Led Zeppelin both were regulars on the rock festival circuit in 1968 and 1969, and Jimmy Page has said he was an admirer of Spirit, known for incorporating jazz and Eastern influences in its sound. The first album was in Page’s record collection, although he maintained he had no idea how it got there.
The jury found that the Led Zeppelin frontmen had exposure to the Spirit song, but the two compositions did not have sufficient similarities to warrant a songwriting credit for California. The eight jurors asked to listen to both songs just before issuing their verdict. They only heard “Taurus” played on an acoustic guitar, however, because of a technicality that was blasted by the plaintiff’s attorney, Francis Malofiy.
Page and Plant both took the stand, saying the similar material in the songs came down to a commonplace “descending chromatic scale of pitches” used throughout musical history.
While there was no doubt the pair wrote the vast majority of the epic “Stairway,” Led Zeppelin long has been known for “borrowing” material for songs — primarily from blues and roots artists such as Willie Dixon. The judge, however, did not permit jurors to hear of the band’s history of disputed credits.
Tracks involved in past authorship controversies included “The Lemon Song,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “How Many More Times,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Dazed and Confused.” In a few cases, song credits were changed after the original recordings.
The band’s distributor, Warner Music Group, said after the verdict that it was “pleased that the jury found in favor of Led Zeppelin, reaffirming the true origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands in history, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are peerless songwriters …”
The self-titled “Spirit” debut album is No. 29 on this web site’s list of the best psychedelic albums.