It’s perhaps the most iconic opening guitar riff in rock history — the beginning of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
But that riff has been part of a long-running legal battle over claims that the British super band stole it from another band for its 1971 hit. Now, that war may finally be over.
The Supreme Court declined to take up the case on Monday, which means that the last decision by a U.S. appeals court, which ruled in Led Zeppelin’s favor in March 2020, will stand.
The whole saga began in 2014, when Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the late Randy Craig Wolfe — whose stage name was Randy California, guitarist and songwriter for the band Spirit — filed suit. The band, whose biggest hit was “I Got A Line On You,” claimed Led Zeppelin was guilty of copyright infringement by lifting the riff from a song called “Taurus.”
Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit during a 1968 U.S. tour, but guitarist Jimmy Page testified in a 2016 jury trial in Los Angeles that he never heard the song until recently. But lawyers for Wolfe’s estate declared that Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant heard the song when he saw Spirit play at a club in 1970, a year before “Stairway to Heaven” was released. Plant, too, said he didn’t know the song.
“Plant insisted he had no memory of the night, partially attributing his lack of memory to a bad car crash on his way home,” the BBC reported. “Both he and his wife suffered head injuries in the accident, he told the court, after the windscreen of his Jaguar was left ‘buried’ in his face.”
The L.A. jury “found evidence from musicologists more convincing. Experts who testified said the descending musical pattern shared by both songs had been a common musical device for centuries. One example cited was Chim Chim Cher-ee, from the 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins,” the BBC said. In the end, the jury concluded the songs were “not intrinsically similar.”
But the case moved up the system, hitting the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this year. Again, the court ruled in favor of Zeppelin. “Francis Malofiy, the lawyer representing Wolfe’s estate, told NPR at the time that Led Zeppelin won ‘on a technicality,’ as the court focused on the written score submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office, instead of allowing the jury to hear the recordings of the songs,” National Public Radio reported.
“I think that’s very disheartening for the creatives, and it’s a big win for the multibillion-dollar music industry,” Malofiy said in a statement. “Today, the world knows that: 1) Randy California wrote the introduction to ‘Stairway to Heaven’; 2) Led Zeppelin are the greatest art thieves of all time; and 3) Courts are as imperfect as rock stars,” Malofiy said.
The case was closely watched because Plant and Page, the co-writers of the song, could have been forced to pay millions of dollars in damages for copyright infringement. “Stairway To Heaven” routinely appears on lists of the greatest rock songs ever written and has earned the band millions in royalties.
You already know Led Zeppelin’s opening riff, so here’s what Taurus sounds like. We report, you decide.
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