A four-chord progression in Led Zeppelin's legendary song "Stairway to Heaven" may have been ripped off from another band, a federal judge ruled Friday, saying a jury will have to decide the copyright infringement case.
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant are now scheduled for trial over the 2014 lawsuit, according to court documents.
The lawsuit, filed in 2014, claimed that Page and Plant lifted "significant portions" of "Stairway to Heaven" from "Taurus" — a 1967 instrumental by the rock band Spirit.
U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner on Friday ruled that there were enough similarities between the two songs to warrant a jury trial, which he scheduled for May 10.
The lawsuit was filed by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the late Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California), who founded Spirit.
The defendants argued that "Taurus" was a work for hire and that the "descending chromatic bass line is a centuries-old, common musical element not entitled to protection."
However, while the judge acknowledged the four-chord progression was common in the music industry, he ruled that the "similarities here transcend this core structure." He said he found "substantial similarity" between the two songs.
The lawsuit states that Page "allegedly wrote the most famous rock song of all time" — "Stairway to Heaven" — after Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit in 1968, and Page was familiar with "Taurus," an instrumental song on Spirit's album.
"It is no coincidence that the iconic notes to 'Stairway to Heaven,' that have enthralled generations of fans, sound almost exactly the same as California's ethereal yet classical guitar composition in 'Taurus,'" the complaint states.
The complaint references a 1996 interview with Wolfe, who addressed the similarities between his song and "Stairway," saying, "Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment. It's an exact… I'd say it was a rip‐off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it 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 some day their conscience will make them do something about it."
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and other damages, including statutory damages of $150,000 per infringement as well as punitive damages for the defendants' "outrageous and duplicitous conduct."
The defendants argued that Wolfe had waived his right to the musical composition of "Taurus" when in a 1992 interview he said Led Zeppelin's members "used to come up and sit in the front row of all [Spirit's] shows and became friends, and if they wanted to use ['Taurus'], that's fine." He also said, "I'll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of 'Taurus' for their song without a lawsuit."
Describing it as a "David vs. Goliath case," a lawyer for the plaintiffs said they were "very excited" about the judge's decision. "This whole case is about giving credit where credit is due," Francis Malofiy told BuzzFeed News Tuesday.
Malofiy said that the two parties had a "standard settlement conference" but did not elaborate on whether a settlement was expected. "The cards are now in our hands," he said, adding that the decision was a "game changer" as most infringement cases were dismissed at the judgment stage.
"Unless you're tone-deaf, it's undeniable that the songs are similar," Malofiy said, adding that Led Zeppelin fans were supportive of the case because of the band's "unique history of failing to credit authors of the work they have taken."
Judge for yourself.
Tasneem Nashrulla is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Tasneem Nashrulla at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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