US jury to decide if 'Stairway to Heaven' stolen

2 min

Los Angeles (AFP)

A Los Angeles jury will determine whether Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," one of the most recognizable songs in rock history, was stolen.

A representative of Spirit, a Los Angeles psychedelic band that enjoyed a niche following but never the superstardom of Led Zeppelin, said the song's famous opening melancholy guitar line was lifted from its instrumental track "Taurus."

After two years of legal proceedings, a judge stopped short of agreeing that the song was copied but said there was enough of a case for a jury trial, which was scheduled for May 10.

Spirit's representative "failed to proffer evidence of striking similarity, but he has successfully created a triable issue of fact as to access and substantial similarity," US District Court Judge Gary Klausner said in a decision last week that was made public Monday.

The judge said the two sides had "vehemently contested" the question of whether Led Zeppelin had access to 1967's "Taurus" before recording "Stairway to Heaven" in London in December 1970 and January 1971.

Led Zeppelin was the opening act for Spirit when the hard British rockers -- Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham -- made their US debut on December 26, 1968 in Denver.

But surviving members of Led Zeppelin submitted testimony to the court that they never had substantive interaction with Spirit or listened to the band's music.

Led Zeppelin argued that the opening of "Stairway to Heaven" -- a descending sequence mostly in A-minor -- had been used in music for centuries and that the lawsuit ignored the rest of the song, which builds over eight minutes.

The judge disagreed, writing that the two songs had additional similarities including the bass line.

Spirit's guitarist Randy Wolfe never took legal action and died in 1997. The lawsuit was filed by Michael Skidmore, identified as a trustee for the late artist.

The lawsuit, which seeks damages, comes amid a rise in such copyright cases, with the family of Marvin Gaye last year controversially winning more than $7 million from a jury over the song "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.

The judge rejected Led Zeppelin's argument that it was too late to file a lawsuit, pointing out that the band released a remastered version of "Stairway to Heaven" in 2014.

But the judge said that Skidmore would be entitled only to half of any amount in damages as Wolfe had signed a contract giving 50 percent of royalties to his music publisher.