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Zeppelin on trial for Stairway 'rip-off'

dpadpa 6/05/2016 Valerie Hamilton

Heaven one of the most recognisable tunes in rock history. But did they lift the music from another, lesser-known band? A US court will decide.

Before there was Led Zeppelin, there was Spirit.

The US psychedelic rock band founded in 1967, a year before Led Zeppelin, has largely been forgotten. But lawyers for the band say Spirit's musical legacy lives on - in Led Zeppelin's 1971 classic Stairway to Heaven.

Mick Skidmore, trustee for the late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, argues that the British rockers stole Stairway's iconic opening from Spirit's 1968 song Taurus, and he is suing Led Zeppelin for songwriting credit on the mega-hit.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page has called the claims "ridiculous." But a judge ruled that the two songs sound similar enough that a jury should decide the lawsuit, which was filed in 2014.

"While it is true that a descending four-chord chromatic progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure," judge Gary Klausner wrote.

The trial begins on Tuesday in United States District Court in Los Angeles.

At stake is a share of the royalties for Stairway to Heaven, which topped 562 million dollars, according to a 2008 estimate by Conde Nast Portfolio.

Skidmore's lawyers said he would settle the suit for just 1 dollar in back damages - if Led Zeppelin gives Wolfe a songwriting credit. That acknowledgment could still be worth millions of dollars in future rights.

To prove copyright infringement, Skidmore will have to show that Led Zeppelin had access to Taurus and that the band copied it to make something substantially similar.

Spirit members said Led Zeppelin likely heard them play Taurus onstage when the two bands toured together in 1968 and 1969, before Led Zeppelin became famous. Led Zeppelin began work on Stairway to Heaven in 1970.

Led Zeppelin have been accused of plagiarism before, and have settled out of court on claims they borrowed other musicians' work on their songs Babe I'm Gonna Leave You, Whole Lotta Love and Dazed and Confused.

But Stairway to Heaven may represent another order of magnitude.

Rolling Stone magazine ranked the "iconic anthem" at No 31 on its list of the greatest songs of all time. Page has called the song his "baby" and said it "crystallised the essence of the band."

Claims of copying are not uncommon in pop music, where inspiration, sampling and outright theft coexist in shades of grey. Johnny Cash, John Lennon, Coldplay and Rod Stewart are among those who have settled claims of plagiarism over hit songs.

Few such lawsuits reach a jury, and some of the most famous of those cases have not ended well for big-name performers.

The late Beatle George Harrison had to pay nearly $US1.6 million ($A2.14 million) dollars after a jury found he had unintentionally plagiarised The Chiffons' He's So Fine in his 1971 solo song My Sweet Lord.

Last year, a jury ordered Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to pay heirs of soul singer Marvin Gaye $US7.3 million dollars for borrowing from Gaye's 1977 song Got to Give It Up in their 2013 hit Blurred Lines. Williams and Thicke have appealed the decision.

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