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Were Stairway to Heaven chords a rip-off? Judge orders Plant and Page to stand trial on copyright infringement -

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KIM LANDERS: It's one of the world's most recognised rock songs, but did Led Zeppelin steal the opening chords of Stairway to Heaven?

A US judge thinks there's enough evidence for a jury to find that it did and he's ordered the band's lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page to stand trial on accusations of copyright infringement.

Anne Barker reports.

ANNE BARKER: It sounds like it, but it's not the opening chords to Led Zeppelin's signature classic Stairway to Heaven.

(Taurus plays)

In fact they're the opening chords to an instrumental song Taurus, which the US band Spirit released in 1968.

(Taurus plays)

That same year both bands performed in the US at concerts and festivals, although not on the same stage.

And barely three years later Led Zeppelin wrote Stairway to Heaven.

(Stairway to Heaven plays)

The similarities between the two songs weren't lost on Taurus songwriter Randy Wolfe who tragically drowned in 1997 trying to save his son.

But his trustee Michael Skidmore brought a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin's lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page.

(Stairway to Heaven plays)

... alleging the pair may have been inspired by the song Taurus but failed to give Randy Wolfe credit.

Now a US judge Gary Klausner has ruled a jury could find 'substantial' similarity between the two songs.

GARY KLAUSNER (voiceover): While it is true that a descending chromatic 4-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure.

What remains is a subjective assessment of the 'concept and feel' of two works; a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury.'

ANNE BARKER: Skidmore's lawyer says the case is about giving credit where credit's due.

Although Jimmy Page and Robert Plant claim that Randy Wolfe was a songwriter for hire who had no copyright claim and that the chord progressions were so clichéd, they didn't deserve copyright protection.

It's an idea that has some validity, according to Fairfax music writer Bernard Zuel.

BERNARD ZUEL: They sound similar but so do many, many other songs and many songs share DNA, essentially.

ANNE BARKER: I mean I guess it raises the question at what point, I mean how many bars do you need before a song can be claimed to be stolen even if you had say two cords, does that mean someone else could claim a theft?

BERNARD ZUEL: Well that's indeed the basis of many claims over the decades now. How much can you claim has been taken from someone, how much of a song can you claim, a rhythm of a song, can you claim a sound?

You know the recent cases we've had have turned on some of those issues and it's very problematic and it's not, it's definitely not something that you can predict with any confidence going into a case like this.

ANNE BARKER: The case against Led Zeppelin has several precedents, including a lawsuit against Australian band Men at Work, which were found guilty of plagiarism for the flute riff in the song Down Under.

(Down Under plays)

And Bernard Zuel says it's not the first time Led Zeppelin has faced claims of music theft.

BERNARD ZUEL: Led Zeppelin have settled with a number of songwriters over the use of material which they thought maybe assumed that it was in the public domain but it wasn't.

ANNE BARKER: The trial is set down for May the 10th, although Judge Klausner has ruled that Randy Wolfe's trustee will at most get 50 per cent of any damages awarded because of a contract he signed in 1967.

(Stairway to Heaven plays)

KIM LANDERS: Anne Barker with that report.

EDITORS NOTE: The original audio that went to air contained a mistake. This is a replacement audio and transcript.