How Led Zeppelin won the Stairway To Heaven plagiarism case

8 November 2020, 12:00

Led Zeppelin and their guitar riff nemesis Randy California of Spirit
Led Zeppelin and their guitar riff nemesis Randy California of Spirit. Picture: Charles Bonnay/The LIFE Images Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The legendary rock band won a long-running copyright dispute over the classic 1971 song. Here's what the judge decided.

In March 2016 Led Zeppelin won a long-running copyright dispute over the opening riff in their classic song Stairway To Heaven.

The iconic rock band were accused of stealing the song's opening riff from a song called Taurus by US psych-rockers Spirit, recorded three years before the release of the album Led Zeppelin IV, which contained the rock behemoth.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page - who wrote the song - would have been required to pay millions of dollars in damages if they'd lost in the courts.

Led Zeppelin IV has gone on to sell in excess of 37 million copies worldwide since its release on 8 November 1971. It was estimated in 2008 that the song had amassed royalties of around $562 million - and that was before streaming began in earnest. In the five years that the legal battles were raging, Stairway was estimated to have earned $3.4 million.

Led Zeppelin IV - the album that contained the classic track Stairway To Heaven
Led Zeppelin IV - the album that contained the classic track Stairway To Heaven. Picture: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe aka Randy California, who died in 1997 and bassist Mark Andes, originally brought the action in May 2014. While Page and Plant wouldn't have been liable to fork over half a billion dollars, they would have been required to give California's estate a cut of any future earnings if the case had been won.

The basis of the case was the fact that Zeppelin had performed on the same bill as Spirit in 1970, leading the American act to believe that Page and co "had access" to the song.

The case finally came to court in May 2016 the judgement ruled Stairway To Heaven "was not intrinsically similar" to Taurus.

Jimmy Page testified that he'd never heard the Spirit tune before: "It was totally alien to me."

He continued: "When it started, I was confused by the comparison... 'What's this got to do with Stairway?'"

While the jury didn't accept that the members of Zeppelin were unaware of the song, they did agree with evidence from musicologists, who said that the descending chord sequence had been used for centuries.

Spirit's lawyers immediately appealed, claiming that the jury weren't allowed to hear the full version of Taurus.

"Mr. Page undoubtedly relied upon Taurus to create the nearly identical introduction to “Stairway to Heaven", Spirit's lawyer Francis Malofiy told reporters.

The case was re-opened in 2018, when the US Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the trial judge had made a series of errors in the original trial, which led to a new hearing being ordered.

But it was all for nothing - in March 2020, the US Supreme Court denied the appeal and let the 2016 judgement stand For Page and Plant, the copyright case was over and they were in the clear.

Spirit's lawyer Francis Malofiy was still defiant. He told Rolling Stone: "What you have here is a big win for the multi-billion dollar industry against the creatives. I love Led Zeppelin, as a man, but they’re the greatest art thieves of all time and they got away with it again today."