NEW YORK: Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page are facing a US jury trial for allegedly stealing the opening chords for their 1971 classic Stairway to Heaven.
In a decision, district judge Gary Klausner said Stairway and the 1967 instrumental Taurus by the band Spirit were similar enough to let a jury decide whether Plant and Page were to be tried for copyright infringement. A hearing is scheduled for May 10.
The lawsuit was filed by Michael Skidmore — a trustee for the late Randy California, who was Spirit’s guitarist and the composer of Taurus.
Skidmore claims Page may have been inspired to write Stairway after hearing Spirit perform Taurus during the bands’ collective tour in 1968 and 1969.
The defendants said California was a songwriter-for-hire, who had no copyright claim and that the chord progressions were so clichéd that they did not deserve copyright protection.
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The judge, however, said a jury could find “substantial” similarity between the first two minutes, which are “arguably the most recognisable and important segments” of the songs.
“While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure,” wrote Klausner.
“What remains is a subjective assessment of the ‘concept and feel’ of two works, a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury.”
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Klausner dismissed claims against Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Warner Music Group Corp. He also said the trustee can get only 50% of any damages awarded, citing a 1967 contract that California had signed.
“This case has always been about giving credit where due and now, we get to right that wrong,” Francis Malofiy, a lawyer for Skidmore, said by phone.
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A lawyer for the defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment. According to the complaint, California spoke of the similarities between the songs in an interview shortly before he drowned in the Pacific Ocean in 1977.
Stairway to Heaven is a track on Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth studio album, often referred to as Led Zeppelin IV.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2016.
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