"Stairway to Heaven" is one of the most iconic songs of the rock 'n' roll canon. So it seems almost blasphemous to even imply that Jimmy Page’s signature arpeggio in the song's intro was stolen.
But a lawsuit filed last year in Philadelphia on behalf of Randy California, the late guitarist for the Los Angeles band Spirit, claims just that. The judge in the case has ruled that, at the request of Led Zeppelin's defense team, the case should be tried in a federal court in L.A.
The controversy surrounding the alleged plagiarism has a long history. In a 1997 interview, California, born Randy Craig Wolfe, said that Page took an interest in their song "Taurus" during Zep's first American tour, during which they opened for prog-rock band Spirit. As NPR reported last year, California never pressed the issue, but he believed the song was ripped off and that it morphed into "Stairway":
Well, if you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment. It’s an exact … I’d say it was a rip-off. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said, "Thank you," never said, "Can we pay you some money for it?" It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe some day their conscience will make them do something about it. I don’t know. There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers, and artists. But when artists do it to other artists, there’s no excuse for that. I’m mad! [Laughs] — Listener Magazine (cited in the music blog "Turn Me On, Dead Man.")
Francis Malofiy, the lawyer for the late singer's estate, said, "Attribution is the most important thing,'' City News service reported. "What we want is for credit to be given where it's due. I'm a fan of Led Zeppelin, but in this situation, we want credit for Randy.''
It should be noted that Malofiy was facing disciplinary action for unusual court "antics" stemming from another copyright lawsuit he filed against Usher, behavior that could potentially get Malofiy disbarred, "Philadelphia Magazine" reported last year.
The "Stairway" court filing alleges the three remaining members of Led Zeppelin "have exploited and continue to exploit 'Taurus' as 'Stairway to Heaven.'"
According to the official version of the song's provenance, however, "Page holed himself up in a remote cottage in Wales called Bron-Yr-Aur, and by fireside, wrote 'Stairway to Heaven,'" wrote "The Hollywood Reporter":
"I had these pieces, these guitar pieces, that I wanted to put together," Page would later explain in describing the writing of the song. "I had a whole idea of a piece of music that I really wanted to try and present to everybody and try and come to terms with. Bit difficult really."
Randy California's estate stands to gain millions from the song's earnings, if not the long awaited recognition. A 2008 estimate from "Conde Nast Portfolio" puts Zep's earnings from this song alone at around $562 million, according to NPR.
Famously, Led Zeppelin has been sued for musical plagiarism on multiple occasions for the songs "Dazed and Confused," "Bring it on Home" and "Whole Lotta Love," the latter two being settled out of court.
With the recent high-profile copyright lawsuits against Robin Thicke and Pharell, and another against Sam Smith, it will be interesting to see how the suit plays out in court. Thicke and Pharell have said they would appeal the $7 million ruling in favor of Marvin Gaye's family in the "Blurred Lines" case, and Smith agreed to credit Tom Petty on the song "Stay With Me."
If Jimmy Page goes the Robin Thicke route, some very lucky jurors might get a front row seat to an intimate performance of the legendary intro by Page himself.
Listen to "Taurus" and compare it to the intro in "Stairway." In the second video below, Jimmy Page breaks down each part of the song for the BBC, and, not surprisingly, there is no mention of "Taurus." He does say the intro is in the "style of a poor man's 'Bourée' by Bach," but that lawsuit is unlikely.
You can also try your ear at the "Real 'Stairway to Heaven,'" game over at Bloomberg.
Jimmy Page: How "Stairway to Heaven" was written
This story has been updated.