When you look back at the great bands in rock history, there are always accusations of stolen riffs (and, at times, whole tunes). Take The Beatles as an example. While few doubt the Fab Four’s originality, they had to settle lawsuits claiming copyright infringement over the years.
The same goes for Led Zeppelin, the band that dominated the rock scene in the 1970s. Over the years, Zeppelin got caught lifting parts of songs (and more) without giving credit to the bluesmen who performed the original tunes.
Multiple accusations dogged the band for years, but by the second decade of the 20th century you’d expect the claims to have stopped. Somehow, that isn’t the case, and the band’s mega-hit “Stairway to Heaven” continues to be the source of legal troubles for Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in 2019.
After a Los Angeles jury cleared Page and Plant of plagiarizing the opening part “Stairway” in 2016, appeals court judges ordered a new trial late last year. A song by Spirit is the subject of the suit.
‘Taurus’ by the band Spirit is the song in question.
If you’ve never heard of the band Spirit, the group came out of California and produced 11 albums from 1968-77. On the band’s self-titled debut, a song called “Taurus” (by Spirit founder Randy Wolfe) delivers a very “Stairway” feel for 2 minutes and 40 seconds.
The similarity didn’t go unnoticed by Wolfe (whose rock name was Randy California). Before he died in 1997, Wolfe told a magazine he remained “sore” Page and Plant never offered him credit for the song while he was alive. There are certainly similarities.
However, similarities aside, you’d have to get into copyright law to determine whether that inspiration counts as infringement. That’s exactly what the next trial in the lawsuit will determine.
The terms of the trial will be different, though. While musicians only played sheet music of the song in court during the first trial, jurors will have access to the Spirit recording the second time around.
Meanwhile, they’ll hear the details about when and where Led Zeppelin’s members might have heard it.
When Zeppelin met Spirit
There is no mystery about whether Page and Plant knew Spirit. In an early California tour, Led Zeppelin opened for Wolfe’s group. The following year, with Zeppelin then the more famous group of the two, Spirit became the opening act.
In the trial, the lawyer for Wolfe’s estate argued that Page and Plant would have heard Spirit perform “Taurus,” or at least heard the record. He noted that Zeppelin played another Spirit song (“Fresh Garbage,” also from Spirit) in their live shows.
So why did it take over 50 years for the lawsuit to materialize? Wolfe may have been sore, but not sore enough to sue. He even once said that if Page and Plant wanted to use that riff, he’d let them have it “without a lawsuit.”
Decades after his death, Wolfe’s estate disagreed. As of 2019, the issue remains unsettled, with another trial looming.
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