The long-gestating copyright dispute over Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven” finally heads to jury trial in Los Angeles today.
Attorneys representing the estate of Spirit founder Randy California accuse Zeppelin of lifting the Spirit song “Taurus”, which was written and recorded in 1967. In the time between then and the recording of “Stairway to Heaven” in 1971, Zeppelin toured with Spirit. Guitarist Jimmy Page acknowledged that Spirit may have influenced his writing of the song, but called accusations of plagiarism “ridiculous.”
In April, U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner determined the two songs shared enough similarities to move forward to trial. “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,” the judge said. “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.”
However, since then, several rulings have gone Led Zeppelin’s way. Specifically, Judge Klausner said the jury will not hear testimony about the wealth of Led Zeppelin’s members or how they used drugs and alcohol in the 1970s. The jury will also not hear the actual music in question, but instead recreations based on original sheet music that was filed with the US copyright office.
Late last week, attorneys for the plaintiff filed a motion to exclude the testimony of musicologist Lawrence Ferrara, citing a conflict of interest. In 2013, Ferrara participated in a musicology analysis conducted by Spirit’s publisher, “which the defense counsel knew about but purposefully failed to disclose,” the motion read. “Defense counsel misleadingly stated and implied that they had no knowledge about this situation, but in fact they orchestrated the entire scenario and have conspired with Plaintiff’s publisher (and fiduciary) since 2014 to undermine Plaintiff’s lawsuit, including by inducing the publisher to file false documentation with the Copyright Office in 2016 in an effort to undermine Plaintiff’s case.” Judge Klausner ultimately rejected the motion.
The estate for Randy California is seeking monetary compensation as well as a songwriting credit. Ironically, the lawsuit only came to a head after Led Zeppelin reissued “Stairway to Heaven” in 2014. Prior to that, the case fell outside the state of limitations.