A federal appeals court panel Friday reinstated a Los Angeles lawsuit alleging that classic rock band Led Zeppelin stole the opening guitar riff of its smash hit “Stairway to Heaven” from an obscure tune by the defunct Southland band Spirit.
A downtown Los Angeles federal jury ruled in 2016 there was not enough evidence to support claims by the estate of the late Spirit songwriter/guitarist Randy Wolfe, known as Randy California, that the guitar intro to “Stairway” was lifted from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.”
But a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday remanded the case for a new trial, determining in part that some of the instructions given to the Los Angeles jury during the trial were “erroneous and prejudicial.”
According to the ruling, the trial judge “prejudicially erred by failing to instruct the jury that the selection and arrangement of unprotectable musical elements are protectable. Second, the district court prejudicially erred in its instructions on originality.”
The appellate panel also found that the trial court “abused its discretion by not allowing recordings of `Taurus’ to be played for the purpose of demonstrating” that Page and Plant had access to the song.
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant attended much of the 2016 trial in downtown Los Angeles, and both testified.
An attorney for Wolfe’s estate argued during the case that Page and Plant should be held accountable for millions of dollars in royalties for having “lifted” a brief musical passage from “Taurus” more than 45 years ago and using it as the introduction to their rock epic “Stairway to Heaven.”
Plaintiff’s attorney Francis Malofiy contended during the trial that Page and Plant crossed paths with Spirit while on the road and were familiar with the Los Angeles band’s music, particularly the group’s album track “Taurus,” which the lawyer claims became the basis for the 2-minute, 14-second acoustic-guitar intro to “Stairway.”
But Peter Anderson, attorney for Page and Plant, countered that the delicately descending pattern is a commonplace “musical building block” that is in the public domain and thus not legally protectable.
Anderson told jurors the plaintiff never proved that Page and Plant were familiar with “Taurus” or that Page and Plant had ever heard Spirit perform in the few times the bands shared a concert bill in 1968 and 1969.
Anderson said the “descending chromatic scale” played by Page in the first moments of “Stairway” is merely a musical device, so common and unoriginal that “it belongs to everyone.”