Led Zeppelin Embroiled In Copyright Infringement Lawsuit

The members of the band Led Zeppelin have been accused of plagiarism by the heirs of Randy Craig Wolfe, guitarist for the 1960’s band Spirit. The dispute involves the songs, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin released in 1971 and a 1968 song titled “Taurus” by Spirit. Plaintiffs claim that Led Zeppelin plagiarized portions of “Taurus,” specifically a guitar progression that is very similar to both songs.

The Hollywood Reporter states that Led Zeppelin is seeking a motion for summary judgement in the case on the contention that the plaintiffs, Randy Craig Wolfe Trust do not have sufficient grounds to bring the lawsuit. The motion hinges on three points:

First, Led Zeppelin contends that the song “Taurus” was a “work for hire,” and that Wolfe never owned copyright to the song in the first place. Wolfe was in a contractual obligation to Hollenbeck Music and it is Hollenbeck that owns the copyright to the song.

Runes on the front of Led Zeppelin IV
[Image via freakofnature | Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain]
Second, in 1991 Wolfe stated in an interview that “if they [Led Zeppelin] wanted to use Taurus that’s fine… I’ll let them have the beginning of ‘Taurus’ for their song without a lawsuit.”

According to Led Zeppelin’s legal representation this constitutes a waiver of claim to the song.

Third, HR reports, “The 43 years between the time that Stairway to Heaven came out and the filing of the lawsuit rises to laches, meaning a delayed lawsuit that have [sic] a prejudicial effect on defendants.”

In essence, what this means is that the three years statute of limitations has long since expired, and key witnesses involved in the case, including Led Zeppelin’s late John Bonham and Spirit’s John Craig Wolfe, cannot be called to testify. Defense bases this line of defense on a similar lawsuit between Martin Scorsese and Paula Petrel over copyright infringement involving the movie Raging Bull. It is worth noting that according to the New York Post, Scorsese lost his case in Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision with the SCOTUS ruling that laches could not be invoked in the case. However, the details in each lawsuit are patently different.

In a declaration to the court, Jimmy Page claims that he had never heard the song “Taurus” before 2014 when the issue was first raised. He does admit that he has the record containing the song in his record collection, but states that he does not know where it came from and had never listened to it.

Led Zeppelin guitarist, Jimmy Page
[Image via Andrew Smith | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0]
Page further contends in the declaration that “[Stairway to Heaven] includes a descending chromatic line chord progression and arpeggios, over which played an ascending line. I consider descending chromatic lines and arpeggiated chords basic skills learned by any student of the guitar. Certainly, as a guitarist, I was aware of descending chromatic lines and arpeggios long before 1968.”

Blabbermouth.net reports that Dr. Charles Fairchild, an expert in pop music, believes that the lawsuit against Led Zeppelin lacks merit enough to win despite the similarities found in the songs.

“It seems to me that anyone claiming to have been the first person to have ever written this passage is making quite an ambitious claim. This passage is little more than a stock standard chord progression whose origins would be very difficult to determine. It also happens to be a very easy and satisfying thing to play on any guitar in standard tuning. There are probably a lot of other versions of it out there that would be equally similar.”

“Stairway to Heaven” is arguably one of Led Zeppelin’s most famous and popular songs that is not only treasured by fans of the band, but by music aficionados in general. To many it is a masterpiece that transcends typical rock and roll music. It’s a song that progresses through many changes in speed and style while still maintaining the melody in such a way as to transition smoothly. The listener starts out swaying to a slow, melodic ballad and ends up stomping and moshing to a loud, fast, heavy metal hit without even pausing to wonder how he or she got there.

Because of the song’s appeal it has been covered by numerous bands and made appearances in other media and movies, such as this brief appearance in the Mike Myers film, Wayne’s World.

The song is estimated to be worth around $560 million according to Blabbermouth. Such a high value validates a motive for bringing the lawsuit, especially from the heirs of a band that had little recognition. It is probable that the heirs of Wolfe are only in it for the money. Even were the lawsuit to win, it is highly unlikely that anyone, especially Led Zeppelin fans, would acknowledge Spirit’s contribution to the song.

[Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images]