On 14 June, a case against Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, and guitarist Jimmy Page, went on trial in Los Angeles. The lawsuit, originally filed in May 2014, charges that Led Zeppelin took the opening section of one of its most iconic anthems, “Stairway to Heaven”, from the lesser-known song “Taurus”, performed by the American rock band Spirit. Michel Skidmore, representing the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe (who died in 1997), accused Led Zeppelin of the ‘falsification of Rock n’ Roll history’; a claim that was deemed to be ‘inventive, yet legally baseless’ by the court. However, experts say that Led Zeppelin does not necessarily have the upper hand going into trial.
In rare cases, it is possible to prove that two works are strikingly similar, to the point that independent creation is precluded. Skidmore’s experts tried to show the existence of such similarity, but the court rejected this claim, declaring that the primary feature of both works is a ‘common musical structure’. As musicologist Lawrence Ferrara stated, the chord progressions in both “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” are centuries old, and have even been referred to as ‘commonplace musical devices’ by jazz theorists.
In US copyright law, to be liable for direct copyright infringement without proof of striking similarity, two conditions have to be satisfied; a defendant must have had access to the plaintiff’s work and there must be substantial similarity between the infringing and the infringed work.
While the defendant’s experts (such as Ferrara) deny any similarity, Erik Johnson, a professor of music hired by Skidmore for the case, claims that the guitar part in question, which is the signature element in “Stairway”, is substantially the same as the guitar element in “Taurus”, and the vocal melody also bears a significant resemblance to the harpsichord in Spirit’s song. Further, the court acknowledges that there is a ‘factual dispute on the issue of access’, which adds to the complexity of the case. Led Zeppelin members deny ever having heard the song by Spirit, despite the fact that it had been written three years before the 1971 release of “Stairway” and the two bands even toured together between 1968 and 1970.
The suit seeks $40 million in damages and, since the case has been going on for three years, it is likely to not be settled immediately. However, some experts say that the dispute will possibly end with a confidential settlement agreement, involving payments made to Spirit and granting writing credit to Randy Wolfe (known by his stage name as Randy California). This is precisely how Led Zeppelin has resolved prior copyright infringement issues related to songs such as “Whole Lotta Love” and “Dazed and Confused”.
The above is merely our synopsis of what we think is an interesting story. We do not claim to be experts on Copyright in the music industry – but we know plenty of people who are. Nick Kounoupias is one such expert … you can find him at www.kounoupiasip.com