Here’s why Led Zeppelin is going to court over ‘Stairway to Heaven’

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin

Two members of British rock band Led Zeppelin will go to court in Los Angeles on May 10 over a copyright dispute regarding the song "Stairway to Heaven."

The case against Led Zeppelin comes from a trustee for the estate of a member of American rock band Spirit, who released a song named "Taurus" in 1968.

Michael Skidmore, representing the estate of Spirit member Randy Wolfe, claims that Led Zeppelin copied the introduction of "Taurus" and transformed that into the opening section of "Stairway to Heaven."

Led Zeppelin denies the claim and asked a Los Angeles judge to issue a summary ruling on the case, but it was only granted in part. That means the case will go to court.

One member of Led Zeppelin is already off the hook

John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin’s bass and keyboard player, is no longer a defendant in the trial. The Los Angeles judge granted Led Zeppelin’s request for a summary judgment in regards to dismissing the suit against Jones and also against Warner Music.

There have been some pretty wild claims

Skidmore accused Led Zeppelin of "falsification of Rock n’ Roll history." That’s a pretty big claim, but it’s also difficult to prove legally. An April 8 decision by the Los Angeles judge says that the "plaintiff presents an inventive—yet legally baseless—claim … The Court has diligently searched but is unable to locate any cognizable claim to support this theory of liability."

It’s only about a specific part of both songs

Skidmore’s lawsuit specifically accuses Led Zeppelin of copying the introduction to "Taurus." Both sides of the case called expert witnesses to examine the musical structure of the songs. It all boils down to two letters: A and B. "Taurus" starts with an "AABAAB" structure, while "Stairway to Heaven" has an "AABAABAA" structure. 

In order to persuade the judge to grant him damages, Skidmore had to demonstrate that there was a "striking similarity" between "Taurus" and "Stairway to Heaven." But the Los Angeles judge decided that the songs were not close enough to rule on, but that they were similar enough that it should go to trial.

If you wanted to compare the two tracks yourself, you can listen to them below. First up is "Taurus" from 1968, then "Stairway to Heaven" from 1971:

It all comes down to whether Led Zeppelin had "access" to the song they’re accused of copying

Skidmore didn’t manage to prove that there’s a striking similarity, so now he has to show the jury that Led Zeppelin knew about "Taurus" and heard it before they wrote "Stairway to Heaven" in 1971. Led Zeppelin and Spirit shared festival bills three times between 1968 and 1970, and Skidmore says that Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant socialised with the band after a Spirit show.

Led Zeppelin deny that they heard "Taurus" before 1971. Guitarist Jimmy Page said in a deposition that the nature of music festivals mean that the time spent preparing for shows and moving equipment means he never heard Spirit perform. Robert Plant says he couldn’t have gone to the pub with Spirit — as one band member claims — because the pubs in England closed before the shows they played ended, according to the deposition.

Funnily enough, Page recently discovered that he owns a copy of Spirit’s debut album. But he says that he owns "several thousand albums" and, "like a book collector," he doesn’t listen to them all.

The Los Angeles judge didn’t find Skidmore’s evidence about access convincing. On April 8, he wrote: "the Court finds that Plaintiff has not proffered sufficient evidence to raise a triable issue of fact that Led Zeppelin members had direct access to Taurus." 

However, the court does acknowledge that there is "a factual dispute" on the issue of whether Led Zeppelin heard "Taurus" or not, so that will go to trial on May 10.

The man whose estate is suing Led Zeppelin once said Led Zeppelin could have the beginning of Taurus "without a lawsuit"

Wolfe gave an interview in 1991 when he was asked about the similarity between "Taurus" and "Stairway to Heaven." According to court documents, Wolfe said that members of Led Zeppelin "used to come up and sit in the front row of all [Spirit’s] shows and became friends[,] and if they wanted to use [Taurus], that’s fine," and also "I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit."

But Wolfe’s estate claims that he actually he did want to sue Led Zeppelin, and an entertainment lawyer named Linda Mensch claims that he visited her in the nineties asking about how a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin would work, according to court documents. The Los Angeles court decided that Wolfe’s 1991 statement doesn’t constitute abandoning his right to copyright over the song "Taurus."

You can read the judge’s full order that sent the case to trial here:

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