You’ve Probably Heard “Stairway to Heaven,” but not Like This

From the time that Led Zeppelin’s song “Stairway to Heaven” was released in 1971, it has been on a whirlwind of a journey. The song was never released as a single. If fans wanted to hear it, they had to purchase the entire album.

That mentality stuck. When the movie “Wayne’s World” came out in 1992, one scene featured a joke that involved the song. As Wayne begins to play the first notes in a guitar shop, he is directed to a sign that prohibits anyone from playing the song in the store. But Wayne isn’t even playing “Stairway to Heaven.” After the movie was released in the U.S., Led Zeppelin declined to give producers the right to use the song.

But perhaps the joke was on Led Zeppelin. In 2014, the band was sued for plagiarism. Randy Wolfe, the lead singer of the band Spirit, claimed that “Stairway to Heaven” used a core musical pattern from his song “Taurus,” which was released in 1967.

By the time representative Michael Skidmore brought the issue to trial, Wolfe had already passed away. He died in 1997. Still, Skidmore sought more than $40 million in damages. The jury found Led Zeppelin not guilty.

In 2018, however, a new trial was ordered by a U.S. appeals court. During the previous trial, the judge had given the jurors incorrect information. He had said that short sequences of notes, arpeggios and chromatic scales may not be copyrighted. He did not explain that those patterns could qualify for protection if they were original enough.

The case will be presented to a panel of 11 judges in September 2019. One of the problems with the earlier trial was that the jury didn’t get to listen to a recording of “Taurus.” Instead, the members were presented with the sheet music, which doesn’t accurately represent the signature riff.