Today, Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page both appeared at the Edward Roybal federal building, in downtown Los Angeles, for the copyright trial of the iconic rock theme “Stairway To Heaven.” Not only is this an iconic rock anthem, but as of 2008, the song has made over $562 million. There is a potentially huge payout for the estate of Randy Wolfe.
The lawsuit, a copyright infringement, was on behalf of the late Randy California, whose real name was Randy Wolfe. The suit claims that the opening chords of “Stairway To Heaven” were taken from the Spirit song entitled “Taurus.” Spirit, whose best known track was “I Got A Line On You,” recorded “Taurus” in 1967. Led Zeppelin IV was released in 1971 and written in Wales. Before his death, Wolfe was very bitter that his name was not given writing credits to “Stairway To Heaven.”
“If you listen to the two songs, you can make your own judgment … 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?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me.”
The attorneys for Wolfe claim that there should have been writing credit and monetary gains for the beginning chords of “Stairway To Heaven.” The Led Zeppelin attorneys contend that the opening chord progression is a very common progression. The mostly A-minor descending sequence has been a very common musical device that has been used for centuries, thus the medieval feel of the beginning of the song. In addition, the countersuit claims that Wolfe’s lawsuit ignores over two-thirds of the eight-minute song. Thus, the Led Zeppelin attorneys claim that there was no need to credit Wolfe. In addition, the Zep lawyers say that the band was far from Wolfe when recording the album and writing the iconic rock anthem.
While the band claims that they never heard the Spirit song, a copy of the album was in Page’s possession. In addition, the band did tour with Spirit for a short while and it is very possible that they could have heard the music, even backstage, before Led Zeppelin was to perform.
In the courthouse, neither Plant, 67, nor Page, 72, spoke to each other or to the lawyers representing Led Zeppelin. They are expected to attend every single day of the trial.
Back in April, a judge ruled that there was potential for a jury to find a “substantial” similarity between “Taurus” and “Stairway To Heaven” and approved the case to be presented in court. Now the proceedings have begun.
“Stairway to Heaven” is not just one great Led Zeppelin song. Jimmy Page has said that the song “Stairway To Heaven” changed everything. The song “crystallized the essence of the band.” The last song on side one of Led Zeppelin IV — often called ZOSO, after the runic symbols — this anthem changed rock music forever. In 2011, Rolling Stone wrote that “All epic anthems must measure themselves against ‘Stairway to Heaven.'”
New York University copyright-law and intellectual property professor Christopher Sprigman does not see this case as a copyright infringement. He spoke to Rolling Stone to discuss the “Stairway To Heaven” lawsuit.
“People don’t fault Shakespeare for taking poetry from lesser writers and turning it into Antony and Cleopatra. ‘Taurus’ by Spirit is a forgotten song; ‘Stairway’ is the opposite, in part because Led Zeppelin took something from Spirit and made it so much better.”
Perhaps Sprigman sums it up best when he describes the talents of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
“They weren’t just better musicians [than Spirit]. They were better artists.”
Do you think that Randy Wolfe deserves to be in the writing credits of “Stairway To Heaven?” Does this lawsuit change your feelings about the song “Stairway To Heaven?”
[Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images]