Led Zeppelin Wins Copyright Lawsuit: Courts Deem ‘Stairway’ Original Work
Led Zeppelin won a copyright infringement lawsuit Thursday that had been filed against the band’s song “Stairway to Heaven.” Plaintiffs in the case, the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, failed to prove to a federal jury in California that the opening melody of “Stairway” was plagiarized by Jimmy Page and his band from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental, “Taurus.”
The lawsuit stood on shaky grounds when it was filed. In March of this year, Inquisitr reported three obstacles that the Wolfe Trust faced in the case.
- The song Taurus was a “work-for-hire,” and the copyright is owned by Hollenbeck Music, not the Wolfe Trust.
- In 1991, Randy Wolfe stated in an interview that he did not mind Led Zeppelin using the melody and would not sue them over it, resulting in a waiver of claim.
- The case could be raised to laches because of the many years that passed before the lawsuit was brought.
Jimmy Page also contended at the time that lawsuit was filed that he was not even familiar with the song “Taurus” and that he used a simple chord progression for the song.
“[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.”
Lawrence Ferrara, professor of music at New York University, testified that the chord progression in question has been used in music for over 300 years. According to Belfast Telegraph, Ferrara compiled a list of 20 other songs that used the same descending line, all of which were produced before Spirit’s song.
— CONSEQUENCE (@consequence) June 23, 2016
“My Funny Valentine,” the opening of “Michelle” by The Beatles, and the 1967 song “Music To Watch Girls By” were just a few of the songs that share the progression in common.
He also pointed out that the rhythm of “Stairway to Heaven” was substantially different than “Taurus.”
Although not a part of the trial, TJR Music posted a video to YouTube examining the major differences and similarities between the two songs.
Jurors in the Led Zeppelin copyright lawsuit unanimously concluded that “the plaintiff failed to show that Plant and Page were familiar with ‘Taurus’ and that the works were substantially similar,” according to Fox 8.
After the verdict was issued, Led Zeppelin members said they were “grateful” for the outcome and that it finally puts “to rest questions about the origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and confirming what we have known for 45 years.”
Michael Skidmore, Randy Wolfe’s trustee who filed the lawsuit, was understandably disappointed. Had he won the case, he stood to gain millions in past royalties. According to Belfast Telegraph, Led Zeppelin has earned $58.5 million just in the last five years and a portion of that figure is from “Stairway to Heaven” music sales and publishing rights.
— Radio Stan (@radio_stan) June 4, 2016
Skidmore’s representation, Francis Malofiy, seemed surprised at the outcome.
According to a previous story on the Inquisitr, “The lawyer [Malofiy] expressed disappointment over the fact that his team was forbidden from playing the album recording of ‘Taurus.'”
Due to copyright laws at the time the songs were released, only musical notation could be submitted for copyright and not actual recordings. Malofiy felt that this is an unfair technicality, but the defense argued that since the three-year statute of limitations was far exceeded, and they were not raising the case to laches, it was only fair to hear the case under the copyright laws at the time.
Laches is a legal term that means that a claim is invalid if a lawsuit is raised after a length of time that prejudices the defendant. Law.com gives an example of laches.
“Susan Smart has a legitimate claim against her old firm for sexual harassment, but waits three years to come forward and file a lawsuit, after the employee who caused the problem has died, and the witnesses have all left the company and scattered around the country.”
Forty-five years greatly exceeds the statute of limitations on the copyright claim, and witnesses, including Randy Wolfe, are no longer around to give testimony. Laws have changed as well, which is what prejudices the case against Led Zeppelin. So, laches would have been a defense that likely would have resulted in the same outcome.
While the plaintiffs are free to file an appeal, Inquisitr reports, “Several music litigators … agreed it would be a waste of time and money.” For now, Led Zeppelin is just happy that the copyright lawsuit is over and their classic hit remains solely in their hands.
[Photo by Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images]