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New Led Zeppelin 'Stairway to Heaven' Plagiarism Trial Ordered

Robert Plant amidst colourful stage lights in Chicago, USA in 1993. © Fernando Aceves

A new trial has been ordered in a copyright dispute over Led Zeppelin song and rock classic “Stairway to Heaven”. The band were accused of pilfering the opening riff from a little-known 1960s instrumental track, “Taurus”, by a band called Spirit.

Two years ago Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were both cleared of plagiarising the riff, after a six-day trial in Los Angeles. But now the ninth US circuit of appeals has ruled that the judge in that trial gave incorrect information, which ended up misleading jurors about aspects of copyright law which were integral to the lawsuit. So now the case is heading back for another day in court.

Jimmy Page playing his legendary bowed guitar solo during 'Dazed & Confused' whilst onstage with Led Zeppelin in Belfast in March 1971. © Barrie Wentzell

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2015 by Michael Skidmore, who is a trustee for the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe who is deceased. The trial in 2016 was carefully watched by the music industry, and both Plant and Page denied stealing the riff. Page said he wrote the music and Plant the lyrics.

But now this retrial could see it getting a little trickier for Led Zeppelin. According to the Guardian:

The jury found Stairway to Heaven and Taurus were not substantially similar, according to the ninth circuit ruling. But it also said the US district judge R Gary Klausner failed to advise jurors that while individual elements of a song such as its notes or scale may not qualify for copyright protection, a combination of those elements may if it is sufficiently original, the ninth circuit judge Richard Paez said.

Klausner also wrongly told jurors that copyright did not protect chromatic scales, arpeggios or short sequences of three notes, the ninth circuit panel found.

“This error was not harmless as it undercut testimony by Skidmore’s expert that Led Zeppelin copied a chromatic scale that had been used in an original manner,” Paez said.

Led Zeppelin live onstage at K.B. Hallen in Copenhagen, Denmark on the first night of their 1973 European Tour. Their setlist included 'Rock and Roll', 'Whole Lotta Love' and 'Stairway to Heaven'. © Jorgen Angel

Such details could change jurors' minds significantly when it comes to deciding whether the riff was plagiarised or not. Another issue that came up was that jurors didn’t get to hear Spirit’s actual recording of “Taurus” but instead heard renditions from sheet music. It’s claimed the sheet music, and so the renditions, weren’t faithful to the original recording by Spirit, so again jurors were mislead. No date has yet been set for the retrial.

In other Led Zeppelin news, a new animated video (see below) has recently been released as part of the band’s 50th anniversary celebrations which are taking place this year. It features many of the band’s famous tracks (it ends, probably regretfully now, with “Stairway to Heaven”), and has been released to promote a digital-only playlist called Led Zeppelin x Led Zeppelin. It’s available on Spotify and Apple Music.

This is just the most recent of the band’s 50th anniversary releases. There have, not surprisingly, been quite a few re-releases and a book is due too. In March How The West Was Won was reissued, and some remixes for Record Store Day were also released. Then September The Song Remains The Same was reissued.

And in October a new photo book by Real Art Press is coming out. Called Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin the publisher collaborated with the band and was given unlimited access to the band’s archive, to collate a pictorial and anecdotal history of them. It runs at around 400 pages and starts with their first gig at a tiny club and goes through to their O2 arena show in 2007. It will feature interesting facts for fans, like Jimmy Page explaining how the band came to be.

Robert Plant & Jimmy Page performing at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Led Zeppelin's 1977 North American Tour was the eleventh and final concert tour of North America by the band. © Jorgen Angel

Along with this, earlier in the year Robert Plant had hinted at some kind of anniversary celebration by the band themselves, telling The Current when talking about whether any unreleased tracks might surface, “Musically, there’s bits and pieces lying around, but not an album or anything like that. But there will be a celebration, I’m sure, somewhere. A cork will pop!”

However, now the band face a retrial and perhaps an unfavourable outcome as to whether they plagiarised the Stairway riff or not, they probably won’t feel much like celebrating.

Watch a teaser trailer for the new photo book, Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin, below.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer these iconic Led Zeppelin images along with many more as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here.

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