Stairway to Copyright Infringement - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Stairway to Copyright Infringement

Stairway to Copyright Infringement

Ever since the band known as Led Zeppelin burst onto the scene in the late 60’s and continued having monumental success through the 70’s, they completely changed the face of modern rock music with their innovative styles and edgy lyricism.1 One of their greatest hits which helped to skyrocket the band to superstardom status was the iconic song known as Stairway To Heaven which is still known today as one of their greater achievements.2 Winning them many accolades and awards such as the prestigious Grammy award, the song was undoubtedly a smash hit and would go on to be listed as one of the 100 greatest rock songs of all time by VH1.3

On Friday April 8th, 2016, Gary Klausner, a US district judge in Los Angeles ruled that there was substantial similarity between 1971 hit Led Zeppelin song “Stairway To Heaven” and an instrumental called “Taurus” performed by a band called Spirit.4 The claim from the plaintiff party was brought on behalf of the Randy Wolfe estate on trust by Mark Andes in 2014.5

“Taurus” had been written sometime between 1966 and 1967 which was years before Stairway To Heaven would be written and released.6 Apparently both Led Zeppelin and Spirit had performed at numerous concerts and festivals but never on the same stage.7 The district judge held that the evidence presented thus far was compelling enough for a case to be made that the composers of the song Stairway to Heaven had heard the instrumental Taurus being performed somewhere and took inspiration from that to compose their own similar sounding melody.8 The case will now be heading to a jury trial for May 10th, 2016.9

It is worthy of note however that the similarity between both songs was not just discovered recently, as a number of people had commented over the years how similar the opening segments of both songs sounded.10 Apparently, in the liner notes to a reissue of Spirit’s debut album, Randy California himself said: “People always ask me why “Stairway to Heaven” sounds exactly like “Taurus”, which was released two years earlier. I know Led Zeppelin also played “Fresh Garbage” in their live set. They opened up for us on their first American tour.”11 This statement by Randy California would imply to any trained Intellectual Property lawyer that there is sufficient evidence to prove that Led Zeppelin had access to the original composition which the Stairway to Heaven song is based on.

The question then remains; what took Spirit so long to file claims for copyright infringement? As it turns out, the family of Randy California stated that they believed that they lacked the financial resources to bring a case in court until now.12 However, Judge Klausner stated that were the case to be won in favour of the Randy Wolfe estate, the trustee would only be entitled to fifty percent of any damages awarded, citing a 1967 contract that Wolfe signed.13 Also past royalties earned by the song, estimated at more than US$550 million, will not be part of the settlement, but the publisher and composer may be entitled to a share of future profits.14

In conclusion, it would seem that the stairway to copyright infringement is in cases like this a rather clear and simple case of outright borrowing under the guise of paying homage to the god of musical creativity. Alas, where the borrowing begins, originality would undoubtedly end. So much for creativity.

 


  1. Led Zeppelin, Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Led_Zeppelin [https://perma.cc/X7SM-XGT2](last modified Apr. 24, 2016).

  2. Id.

  3. VH1: ‘100 Greatest Rock Songs’: 1-50, RockOnTheNethttp://www.rockonthenet.com/archive/2000/vh1rocksongs.htm [https://perma.cc/XH3D-XST8].

  4. Reuters in Los Angeles, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven may be partly stolen, judge says, The Guardianhttp://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/12/stairway-to-heavens-opening-chords-may-have-been-stolen-judge-says [https://perma.cc/QG9T-Q3FK].

  5. Stairway to Heaven, Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stairway_to_Heaven#cite_note-52 [https://perma.cc/A3LM-FBP8] (last modified Apr. 26, 2016).

  6. Newser Editors and Wire Services, Judge: It’s Possible Part of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Is Stolen, Newser (Apr. 12, 2016), http://www.newser.com/story/223449/judge-its-possible-part-of-stairway-to-heaven-is-stolen.html [https://perma.cc/YL76-NY3D].

  7. Id.

  8. Id.

  9. Reuters in Los Angeles, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven may be partly stolen, judge says, The Guardianhttp://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/12/stairway-to-heavens-opening-chords-may-have-been-stolen-judge-says [https://perma.cc/QG9T-Q3FK].

  10. Derek, Led Zeppelin: Stairway to a Plagiarism Lawsuit, and Jimmy Page on a possible reunion, Anglotopia (May 21, 2014), http://www.anglotopia.net/british-entertainment/british-music-british-entertainment/led-zeppelin-stairway-plagiarism-lawsuit-jimmy-page-possible-reunion/ [https://perma.cc/227L-LWCF].

  11. Id.

  12. Vernon Silver, Stairway to Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar, Bloomberg Businessweekhttp://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-05-15/led-zeppelins-stairway-to-heaven-vs-dot-spirits-taurus-a-reckoning [https://perma.cc/2U6C-PDCS].

  13. Reuters in Los Angeles, Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven may be partly stolen, judge says, The Guardianhttp://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/apr/12/stairway-to-heavens-opening-chords-may-have-been-stolen-judge-says [https://perma.cc/QG9T-Q3FK].

  14. Heinrich Klaffs, Borrowing a Stairway to Heaven: did Led Zeppelin rip off a riff?, The Conversation (May 25, 2014), http://theconversation.com/borrowing-a-stairway-to-heaven-did-led-zeppelin-rip-off-a-riff-27099 [https://perma.cc/Y327-G4DU].

Jason Okanlawon

Jason Okanlawon is an LL.M candidate at Fordham University School of Law and a staff member of the Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal.