It’s common to hear artists talk about their work as being an homage to the work of another artist they admire or someone they once worked with, but sometimes the line between being influenced by an artist and stealing from that artist can get pretty blurry.
Randy Wolfe was a songwriter and member of the rock band Spirit. He wrote the band’s song “Taurus,” the opening chords of which sounded remarkably similar to the opening of the Led Zeppelin’s legendary song, “Stairway to Heaven.” Led Zeppelin and Spirit played some shows when they were touring together, which allegedly gave Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who wrote the seminal “Stairway to Heaven,” access to the Spirit’s song, “Taurus,” which was released three years before “Stairway to Heaven.”
Wolfe had complained on multiple occasions about the similarities between his song and “Stairway to Heaven,” saying he felt ripped off, but he never filed a copyright lawsuit against Led Zeppelin. When Wolfe died in an accident in 1997, Michael Skidmore became the trustee of Wolfe’s songs. Skidmore initially thought suing Led Zeppelin would be like David taking on Goliath, so he didn’t pursue the matter until Francis Malofiy, an American attorney, convinced Skidmore he had a case.
Millions of dollars were at stake in the lawsuit. According to some estimates, “Stairway to Heaven” has made more than $500 million since it’s release in 1971. The plaintiffs partially based the amount of the claims they were seeking on a music publishing deal Plant and Page signed with Warner Music. The deal was allegedly worth $60 million and the plaintiffs attributed most of that amount to “Stairway to Heaven.” But an accountant testifying for Led Zeppelin said page only got $615,000 out of that deal, while Plant got $532,000.
Plant and Page both insist they composed their most famous song independently, without the use of any other band’s music. Despite the fact Led Zeppelin and Spirit were listed on the same bill multiple times in their early touring days, Plant and Page both insist they don’t remember seeing Spirit perform and they don’t remember hearing “Taurus.”
The jury asked to hear both songs twice before they made their decision, but Skidmore claims they never really got to hear “Taurus.” He says the defendants got to play many different versions of “Stairway to Heaven,” but that the jury only got to hear a “deposit copy” of “Taurus,” which he says is essentially a transcript of the song. He said there’s no doubt in his mind that, if they had been allowed to play the full song for the jury, the jury would have clearly seen the similarities between them and ruled in Skidmore’s favor.
As it is, the jury ruled in Led Zeppelin’s favor, finding that, although the songs did bear some similarities, they were not close enough to constitute copyright infringement.
Had they succeeded in getting an award from Led Zeppelin, Skidmore and Malofiy were planning on donating the money to provide music lessons for needy children in the Wolfe’s and Skidmore’s hometowns. Malofiy says they are thinking about appealing the ruling.
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