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article imageLed Zeppelin facing plagiarizing suit over Stairway to Heaven

By Marcus Hondro     Apr 13, 2016 in Music
The iconic British rock band Led Zeppelin must go to court over its most well-known song. The band is being sued by the estate of the late American guitarist, Randy Wolfe, the suit alleging that Led Zep stole some of the music for "Stairway to Heaven."
Led Zeppelin in court
An L.A. district court judge made that ruling. The suit is being brought by lawyer Michael Skidmore, who represents the late guitarist of the American rock band, Spirit. Skidmore claims Spirit appeared on the same bill at music festivals with Led Zeppelin in the late-1960s and that Wolfe in essence wrote a part of the music for "Stairway to Heaven."
"Stairway to Heaven," released in 1971, the copyright infringement suit says, is musically based upon Wolfe's instrumental song "Taurus." All three of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin have vigorously denied the claim in the past but the judge has said there is enough similarity in the two songs to take it to trial and have a jury make the decision.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who wrote "Stairway to Heaven," say they did so in a cottage in Wales and that they did not have contact with Wolfe or Spirit during the times they appeared on the same bill, as does the other surviving member of Led Zeppelin, John-Paul Jones. The suit alleges otherwise.
The riff that Taurus, a song under three minutes long, is made up of is similar to the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven and the jury will have to decide if that similarity is simply coincidence of whether it must have been in some way taken from "Taurus."
Whether unintentionally taken after having heard it, or taken by design, won't matter so much as the determination that the riff in "Stairway to Heaven" followed, and came from, the riff in "Taurus." The claim has not been tested in court as yet and there is no proof to say it is so.
Conflicting versions
A lawyer working with Skidmore on the case for the estate of Wolfe, Francis Malofiy, told Reuters the suit "has always been about giving credit where credit was due, and now we get to right that wrong," Lawyers for Page and Plant have not made a public comment on this latest development.
In his decision the judge, Gary Klausner wrote: "The parties present conflicting versions of the interaction between Led Zeppelin and Spirit at these three events. The surviving members of Led Zeppelin testified that they never toured with, shared a stage with or listened to any of Spirit’s music during these brief encounters. The surviving Spirit members, on the other hand, recalled conversing with the Led Zeppelin members backstage between sets and performing in succession at two of the festivals."
Judge Klausner said the jury could find the first two minutes of music in "Stairway to Heaven" bear a "substantial" similarity to the instrumental song "Taurus."
He added that while the "descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry" nonetheless "the similarities here transcend this core structure."
"What remains is a subjective assessment of the 'concept and feel' of two works," he wrote. "A task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury."
The trial is slated to begin in L.A. on May 10 of this year. The jury could give the entire music writing credit to Wolfe, a portion of the credit to him or none of the credit to him.
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