Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Leads Rock Legends to Courthouse

By Vernon Silver | February 4, 2016

The surviving members of Led Zeppelin have all been questioned in a lawsuit that alleges their hit Stairway to Heaven was filched from an obscure song by the band Spirit. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Robert Plant were each deposed separately over the past month as part of pretrial discovery in the copyright infringement case, new filings in Los Angeles federal court show.

During the depositions in London, they all said that they had no idea what their finances or earnings were with Led Zeppelin, according to a filing by the plaintiff’s lawyer asking for more time to investigate. The musicians and their record company, Warner Music, deny the infringement allegations and say Plant and Page alone composed the 1971 song.

To many ears, the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven sound a lot like Taurus (listen here), an instrumental piece released on Spirit’s debut album in 1968. At the end of that year and throughout 1969, Spirit and Led Zeppelin shared the bill at several concerts.

Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, however, testified his memory of the era was vague, according to the filing by plaintiff’s lawyer Francis Alexander Malofiy, who conducted the questioning. “Jimmy Page’s discovery answers [the] claim that he remembers virtually nothing about the 1960s or 1970s despite many public interviews concerning Spirit where he stated that he listened to the band’s albums and that they struck him on an emotional level, despite the fact that he played and attended concerts where Spirit performed,” Malofiy wrote.

Spirit guitarist Randy California, who composed Taurus, died in 1997. Malofiy, representing the head of the trust that oversees California’s royalties, filed the suit in May 2014. The Philadelphia-area lawyer now wants the court to push the trial date from May to July, in part to give him more time to process the mountains of information he’s gotten in discovery—including 40,000 pages of financial records.

The fight has potentially high stakes. By 2008, when Conde Nast Portfolio magazine published an estimate that included royalties and record sales for Stairway to Heaven, the hit had earned at least $562 million. If the suit succeeds, a three-year statute of limitations would limit the award to the most recent earnings. “Stairway to Heaven is notoriously one of the most protected and valuable pieces of intellectual property in history and thus it is crucial for Plaintiff’s damages experts to be able to fully evaluate all relevant information to come to a competent opinion,” Malofiy wrote.

Should the case come to trial, it might make for good listening. The Led Zeppelin legal team says preliminary recordings prepared in the creation of Stairway to Heaven have been located, according to their response to discovery requests. And the two sides are still battling over whether the defendants should turn over a so-called multi-track version of the song that would allow music experts to isolate the different elements of the song. According to Malofiy’s filings, the very existence of the multi-track was unknown until recent weeks.

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