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'Stairway to Heaven' trial explainer: Everything you need to know about the copyright infringement suit

Jimmy Page has already testified in court

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Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

This week, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin attended Los Angeles court for the infringement trial aiming to determine whether or not the iconic band relied too heavily on the song of one of their classic rock contemporaries when writing “Stairway to Heaven.” The convoluted saga could result in a change of credit and reallocated royalties — and at the very least it’s just the latest in Zeppelin’s decades-long struggle with crediting the influences behind some of their biggest hits. Read on for everything you need to know about the case.

What’s the beef?

Classic rock band Spirit claims Led Zeppelin lifted the opening chords to “Stairway to Heaven” — one of the genre’s most enduring and commercially successful songs — from “Taurus,” a track off the band’s 1968 debut Spirit. According to court documents obtained by EW, Spirit says it shared a bill with Zeppelin three times between 1968 and 1970, meaning the famed British rockers would’ve had multiple opportunities to have heard “Taurus” before releasing Led Zeppelin IV, which includes “Stairway,” in late 1971. The infringement suit was filed in 2014 by Michael Skidmore, who is a trustee for Spirit’s late guitarist Randy Wolfe.

Do the two songs actually sound the same?

Enough to warrant a 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,” U.S. district judge Gary Klausner explained when agreeing to take the case to trial. “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.”

The case hinges on how much a jury believes the arpeggiated acoustic guitar line that appears around the one-minute mark of “Taurus” influenced Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant when they wrote the song. And under U.S. copyright law, Spirit’s camp will have to prove two things: that “Taurus” was copied to make something substantially similar and that Zeppelin had access to the song.

“Stairway” came out nearly 45 years ago. Why hasn’t this dispute been settled sooner?

Wolfe died in 1997, but had already flagged the perceived similarities between “Taurus” and “Stairway.” In the 1996 reissue of Spirit, he wrote that “people always ask” why the two songs sound so similar and added that Zeppelin played another song off the album, “Fresh-Garbage,” during early U.S. gigs in 1969. Enter Skidmore, a former rock journalist who, along with Wolfe’s mother, ran the trust that collected his royalties after his death. “I don’t have the resources and barely have the time to do the trust stuff and hold down two jobs,” he told Bloomberg in 2014, five years after Wolfe’s mother died. “It’s like a hobby. Nobody had any money, and they thought the statute of limitations was done.”

What’s Zeppelin’s defense?

Page himself took the witness stand Wednesday and explained that while he recalled purchasing Spirit’s second and third albums, both released in 1969, he was surprised when he recently discovered other Spirit albums, including the 1968 self-titled one that includes “Taurus.” But he admitted he may have acquired it and lost track of the album among his personal collection that includes “4,329 LPs and 5,882 CDs”: “To be honest, I could’ve bought it or been given it.”

And Page also dismantled Spirit’s argument that the origins of a “Stairway” ripoff may have been a bill the two bands shared on December 26, 1969 in Denver. The guitarist claimed that the band left before Spirit even played in order to travel to Seattle for a gig the following day. Plus, he wrote off Zeppelin’s habit of covering “Fresh-Garbage” as their attempt to “chip a wink to what’s hot.”

Whether or not the jury buys that explanation, Spirit’s surviving members may be sealing their own fate. Bassist Mark Andes initially testified that Plant attended a 1970 gig Spirit played in Birmingham, the U.K. hometown of Plant and Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. But under cross-examination he admitted that Page didn’t attend the show and that his purported meet-and-greet with Plant lasted “about a minute.”

Hasn’t Zeppelin been down this road before?

Zeppelin have a colorful history with appropriating the work of others, to put it mildly. Critics have flagged multiple songs from the band’s albums, particularly their earlier, self-titled collections, as leaning perhaps too heavily on the ideas of classic blues and folk musicians. And in the intervening years, some of the credits that initially recognized only members of Zeppelin have been updated to reflect these influences. After a 1972 lawsuit brought by Chess Records was settled out of court, Led Zeppelin II‘s “Bring It On Home” is now solely credited to the songwriter Willie Dixon. And the iconic Led Zeppelin I track “Dazed & Confused” had an “inspired by Jake Holmes” credit added after the singer-songwriter settled a lawsuit with the band out of court in 2010. Other Zeppelin songs that have had their credits revised include “Whole Lotta Love,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “The Lemon Song.”

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