Led Zeppelin cleared of stealing Stairway to Heaven riff

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had been accused of pinching arguably the most famous riff of the most famous anthem in rock

Led Zeppelin has defeated a lawsuit that accused the band of stealing the opening riff in Stairway to Heaven, and cemented its place in rock’s pantheon.

A jury in Los Angeles cleared Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of pinching arguably the most famous riff of the most famous anthem in rock.

The singer and guitarist were in the US district court for the climax of a six-day trial that gripped the music industry and put the band’s history and credibility under a forensic microscope.

Plant, 67, and Page, 72, denied lifting Stairway to Heaven’s opening passage, which evokes Renaissance folk music, from an LA-based psychedelic band called Spirit.

The estate of Spirit’s guitarist Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, had sued for recognition and a share of the proceeds on the grounds the 1971 mega-hit ripped off Taurus, an instrumental composed in 1967.

Wearing sharp suits with their hair pulled back in ponytails, Plant and Page left court without speaking publicly, but issued a brief statement later that said they were grateful to the jury and look forward to putting the matter behind them.

Francis Malofiy, the estate’s attorney, said he was sad and disappointed by the jury’s decision.

“The reality is that we proved access, but they could never hear what they had access to,” Malofiy said. “It’s bizarre.”

“This case is about one thing, one six-letter word – credit,” Malofiy had told the jury of four men and four women during the trial. He likened the case to a David and Goliath battle.

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant
Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant

Peter Anderson, Led Zeppelin’s attorney, said the case was really an attempt to rewrite history – “to take an iconic song … and [say] it’s got a new parent”.

Journalists and Led Zeppelin fans packed the public gallery for a trial which veered from surreal to nostalgic to belligerent as Plant, Page and other witnesses testified about what did and did not happen between 1967 and 1971.

This was a bacchanalian rock’n’roll era famed for sex and drugs but Judge Gary Klausner, a stern presence, kept testimony focused on money, memory and music. The case hinged on two questions. Did Led Zeppelin hear Taurus before composing Stairway? And is Stairway substantially similar to the Taurus sheet music submitted in 1968 to the US copyright office?

Wolfe, a guitar prodigy who wrote the instrumental for his girlfriend, drowned in 1997 saving his son in Hawaii. Shortly before his death, in a magazine interview quoted in the lawsuit, he made his resentment plain. “If you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment … 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.”

The lawsuit alleged Led Zeppelin had a deep-rooted history of lifting composition from uncredited blues artists and other songwriters. It cited disputes over 16 other Led Zeppelin songs, including Whole Lotta Love and Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.

Stairway to Heaven, one of the most played songs on radio, is estimated to have generated more than $500m over the decades. Damages, however, can extend back only three years and into the future.