“Stairway to Heaven” is one of rock’s most recognizable tunes and a core part of the Led Zeppelin catalog. As Jimmy Page gets set today to host an invite-only live stream of previously unheard Zeppelin tracks, he and his band-mates were hit with a lawsuit over who actually wrote “Heaven.”
As previously reported by The Inquisitr, the issue is about the striking similarity between “Stairway to Heaven’s” opening chords and an instrumental track written and recorded by Los Angeles band Spirit. Decades after the release of both songs, the bassist for Spirit and the estate of its now-deceased guitarist are suing Led Zeppelin for songwriting credit.
But does Spirit have a case?
Forbes contributor and lawyer Oliver Herzfeld looked at the evidence and the law. In addition to technicalities over the statute of limitations, which Herzfeld argues may limit any money Spirit might receive to the last three years of “Stairway to Heaven” royalties, the core issue of copyright infringement could be complicated.
Spirit has to show that Led Zeppelin copied their work. To prove copying, they have to demonstrate Zeppelin had access to their music — specifically, the song Taurus — and that Taurus is substantially similar to “Stairway to Heaven.” Herzfeld suggests the history of the two bands touring together may meet the legal criteria of “access,” although he points out the amount of access needed depends on how similar the songs are.
Even if copying is proven, it doesn’t end there. As Herzfeld wrote in Forbes:
“There must also be a substantially similarity to the prior work sufficient to constitute improper appropriation, where ‘substantial’ means substantial in degree as measured either qualitatively or quantitatively and ‘similarity’ means similar in the ears of the ordinary member of the intended audience.”
Further, Herzfeld argues, Zeppelin would have a number of defenses. The band could claim the opening sequence is so small a part of “Stairway to Heaven,” it is considered de minimis use and allowed by law. Zeppelin could argue it developed the riff independently of hearing Taurus – in essence, that they were not influenced by the song. Finally, they could say Taurus itself is not original.
Ultimately, Herzfeld predicts Led Zeppelin will settle to avoid a long legal dispute over “Stairway to Heaven,” especially since Spirit is seeking an injunction that would prevent the planned reissue of Zeppelin albums this June.
[Image: Neal Preston/Corbis]