Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven hit with copyright claim

Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven copyright
Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven copyright

Led Zeppelin‘s Stairway to Heaven has landed the iconic rockers in hot water, with the eight minute epic being subject to a copyright claim by US band Spirit. The band’s late guitarist Randy Wolfe (also known as Randy California) penned the instrumental track Taurus, which was released in 1968. You can judge the similarities for yourself in the video below.

Wolfe’s trustee files Stairway to Heaven claim

A trustee for Wolfe, Michael Skidmore, filed a claim in a Los Angeles court. Judge Gary Klausner ruled on Friday that the opening acoustic guitar arpeggios of Stairway to Heaven are similar enough to Taurus to justify a trial by jury, stating:

“While it is true that a descending chromatic four-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.”

Skidmore can only gain 50 per cent of damages awarded, Judge Klausner ruled, based on the content of a 1967 contract signed by Wolfe. If Skidmore gains financial recompense, it may be even further limited in nature, as Stairway to Heaven is eight minutes of highly varied music, only the very beginning of which bares any resemblance to the Taurus, which is 2.39 minutes long. Even taking this into account, it’s not likely to be small change. Estimates put Stairway to Heaven’s value in past royalties at in excess of $560 million.

Veteran rockers to front court over Stairway to Heaven

Led Zeppelin guitar slinger Jimmy Page and frontman Robert Plant share Stairway to Heaven’s writing credit and will be subject to a court date on May 10. The rockers will assert that the chord progression is too common to copyright. Their lawyers requested the judge shutdown any argument that the pairs’ memory may be flawed due to their sensationalised history with drugs or alcohol.

It’s certainly likely that the Led Zeppelin members heard Spirit play Taurus. Led Zeppelin played shows with Spirit during the former’s first US tour, which took place throughout 1968–1969. Stairway to Heaven was released in 1971. The band members of Spirit have reportedly stated that limited financial resources was the reason a suit was not filed earlier. Wolfe himself has commented on the issue:

“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?’”

Led Zeppelin are no strangers to controversy about the origin of their songs. The band settled out of court in 2012 with singer-songwriter Jake Holmes for the 1967 Zeppelin track Dazed and Confused. Anne Bredon has received a substantial payment of royalties for Babe I’m Gonna Leave You (1969). The band initially failed to credit her but she was belatedly credited in 1990. Led Zeppelin’s 1969 recording Bring it On Home was also subject to an out of court settlement. Chess Records initiated a lawsuit in 1972 for copyright infringement relating Sonny Boy Williamson II’s earlier version of the song. These three songs are just a small example of the controversies in this area, with a huge list of Led Zeppelin songs attracting allegations of plagiarism.

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