The Led Zeppelin ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Plagiarism Trial Explained

Led Zeppelin are currently the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit. The band is being sued by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the late Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California, who was a founding member of the band Spirit. Skidmore alleges that Zep lifted the acoustic guitar intro from the 1968 Spirit song ‘Taurus’ and used it for the 1971 Led Zeppelin song ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (which, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, had earned £334m as of 2008). The formal allegation emerged in May 2014 and the trial is currently being decided by a jury. Here’s the story so far.

Why has the allegation emerged almost five decades later?

Rolling Stone has reported that Wolfe’s family couldn’t afford to raise the lawsuit until May 2014. The magazine also claims: At the end of California’s life, he would play sitar at an Indian restaurant in exchange for food.” Skidmore’s lawyer Francis Alexander Malofiy has also said that a 2014 change in copyright law resulted in the case coming to trial.

Did nobody notice the similarity in the intervening 45 years!?

They did. Wolfe spoke about the similarity in magazine interviews over the years, oscillating between acceptance and disgruntlement. In 1997, the year that he drowned while saving his 12-year-old son from a rip current in Hawaii, Wolfe told Listener: “[Led Zeppelin] made millions of bucks [on ‘Stairway to Heaven’] and never said, ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it.”

It has been claimed, though, that in a previous interview Wolfe had said he was “fine” with the similarity between the songs and, in another conducted in 1991, was quoted as saying: “I’ll let them have the beginning of ‘Taurus’ for their song without a lawsuit.” The judge overseeing the case, Gary Klausner, has said that this shouldn’t be considered in Zeppelin’s favour because Wolfe may have “felt cheated… [but] was merely trying to save face make light of a bad situation.”

Have Led Zeppelin responded in the press?

Asked about the case in 2014, when the lawsuit first emerged, guitarist Jimmy Page told French newspaper Libération: “This is ridiculous. I have no further comment on the subject.” Page recently claimed that he’d not heard ‘Taurus’ until the claim was raised. During his lifetime Wolfe suggested that Zeppelin may have heard the Spirit song when the bands toured together in 1968.

Led Zeppelin have been accused of plagiarism before. Will that be considered in the trial?

That’s up for debate. Malofiy has noted that Robert Plant has faced accusations of plagiarism in the past, notably regarding the songs ‘Dazed And Confused’ (allegedly written by folk singer Jake Holmes), ‘Whole Lotta Love’ (blue musician Willie Dixon settled out of court for an undisclosed amount in 1985) and ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ (Zeppelin’s version was released in 1968 and its writer Anne Bredon was added to its writing credits in 1990). He wants the jury to consider this, while Zeppelin’s lawyer has requested that this information be barred from consideration.

Isn’t all this a bit… late?

Judge Gary Klausner has taken that into account and has stated: “Defendants may renew their request to reduce profits in an amount commensurate with the delay, and the court will consider the issue again at that time.”

How much money does Skidmore stand to gain?

Klausner has already ruled that any damages are limited to 50 percent of what would normally be awarded, given that Skidmore is a trustee and not the victim of the alleged plagiarism. Skidmore has asked for a $1 settlement fee, but that would also entitle him to royalties that potentially amount to £27m in line with a 2008 licensing agreement. He has pledged that the money would be used to help deprived schools gain access to musical instruments. His lawyer Francis Malofiy has said: “It’s always been about credit where credit is due.”

Have there been any precedents for a case of this kind?

To take two: Tom Petty versus Sam Smith and, perhaps more famously, Marvin Gaye’s family versus Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke. Smith was accused of lifting from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1989 song ‘I Won’t Back Down’ for his 2014 track ‘Stay With Me’. Petty and fellow Heartbreakers co-writer were awarded 12.5% of royalties from the song last year.

In 2013, Marvin Gaye’s family raised a lawsuit against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, claiming that their then-new song ‘Blurred Lines’ copied Gaye’s 1977 single ‘Got To Give It Up. In 2015, Gaye’s family were awarded £4.8m. Thicke and Williams’ lawyer Howard E King dubbed the ruling: “A horrible precedent for music and creativity.”

How will the jury make their decision?

In the ‘Blurred Lines’ case, the judge ruled that the jury would not hear the 1977 studio recording of ‘Got To Give it Up’ because Gaye’s family did not own the copyright to that song – only to its original sheet music. As The Hollywood Reporter notes, “the judge worried about unduly influencing the jury with non-protected elements like Gaye’s singing, percussive choices and background vocals”. So instead the jury heard a modified instrumental version that drew only from the basics of the original sheet music.

Zeppelin’s lawyers have argued for a similar procedure, requesting that the jury hears a version of the Taurus’ song recorded from a 1967 transcription of the song. Malofiy contends that the jury should hear the Taurus studio version of the song, as well as live recordings.

Has the trial gone smoothly?

No – there’s been a dispute over video evidence that Malofiy screened. It showed an acoustic rendition of each song, played side-by-side, though it had not been declared in the case exhibit list beforehand, which has led the defence team to call for a mistrial. The defence also claims that the descending chromatic line used in both songs has been a musical staple since the 1600s and cannot be copyrighted. There have been 50 objections against Malofiy during the trial, one of which was sustained.

Jimmy Page has claimed that he had not heard ‘Taurus’ by Spirit until a few years ago, when rumblings of alleged similarities between the songs began to emerge online. He has admitted to owning buying two Spirit albums but says neither contained ‘Taurus’. The band’s self-titled 1968 debut, which does contain the song, is in his collection of “4,329” records but he claims not to know how it got there. Interactions between Malofiy and Page were testy – at one point the former called the latter “the alleged composer” of ‘Stairway to Heaven.

The trial continues.