Copyright & The Legacy of Stairway to Heaven

Led Zeppelin is victorious! They are winners in the trial against Michael Skidmore, the trustee of Rande “California” Wolfe and Francis Malofiy – the brass lawyer. The case was about copyright infringement. With Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin being accused of stealing the opening riff of Stairway to Heaven from Taurus, an instrumental song by Wolfe’s near-forgotten band, Spirit. Also among the charges, the prosecutor Francis Malofiy asserts that Page and Plant are ‘fabricating of rock and roll history.’

That’s quite the accusation. Though the court finds it novel, a jury ultimately decides it to be baseless legally. It is dropped along with the infringement charge. Francis Malofiy would have us believe that Led Zeppelin, when touring with Sprit in 1968, hear Taurus and subsequently copies off its progression of notes for their signature song.

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Artist’s sketch of (left) Led Zeppelin Robert Plant, (right) Jimmy Page in court.

Zeppelin argues that (having never heard Taurus before) Jimmy Page writes a melody more in common with folk progressions that predate any form of copyright.

Listen for yourself.

Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin

Spirit’s Taurus

The trial is short but thematic. Francis Malofiy of the prosecution is quite the character. An inexperienced attorney who may loose his license after this trail. He is reckless. For example, his primary exhibits are on many occasions video and audio material inadmissible to the jury (due to copyright law). The similarities of the songs must be demonstrated on piano by sheet music only. No recordings.

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Robert Plant & Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin in 1972.

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Francis Malofiy during the trial. Photo from Hollywood Reporter.

He also submits his documents minutes before deadlines and in the classic Zeppelin typeface you can find in their brand.

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Example of filing page submitted by Francis Malofiy.

This is not the first plagiarism trial agains the British band. This latest tune Francis Malofiy sung against them, however – is certainly the most out of key.  Since their 1969 debut album, Led Zeppelin have redirected royalties and altered credits for some of their biggest hits. Whole Lotta Love, Dazed and Confused, and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You are notable examples.  But the jury for this trial ruled against Malofiy.

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This [tune] Francis Malofiy sung against them – is certainly the most out of key.

But in the climate of today’s music industry, somewhat frivolous claims of inspiration vs. pilfering can net rewards of tens of millions of dollars in lost royalties and damages to plaintiffs.

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Artist’s sketch of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page in court against copyright infringement.

In Summation

When I listen to Zeppelin, so do neighbours… As a fan, the outcome of this trial is a relief in my humble opinion. It will take more than a lawyer brazen in court; sporting a briefcase shaped like a fender amp to convince me that they are responsible for ‘rewriting rock n’ roll history’. Taurus is a good song, but the jury finds it not the same.

Sprit Band in 1968

The band Spirit in 1968.

So what if Stairway to Heaven is a riff that seems unoriginal in historic folk song melody?  It’s all about who plays it better than the rest.