In 1968, Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin’s guitar player and songwriter, wrote what is arguably the most famous rock song of all time, Stairway to Heaven. According to Randy Craig Wolfe, Founder and guitarist for the band Spirit, the Led Zeppelin masterpiece is just blatant plagiarism of his song Taurus. In late 1968, Led Zeppelin embarked on its first U.S. tour as a warm-up act for Spirit, which had just hit the Billboard top 40 with their self-titled album, Spirit. The album featured Taurus, was a unique 2 minute and 37 second instrumental written by Wolfe, which had a distinct-plucked guitar line and melody. Wolfe drowned in 1997 while saving his son from being swept out to sea. Now 43 years after Stairway to Heaven’s release, the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust is suing the surviving members of Led Zeppelin, Super Hype Publishing, Inc., and Warner Music Group Corp. for copyright infringement. Philadelphia attorney Francis Alexander Malofiy, who just won a copyright infringement case for Usher, is representing the Trust in this case.
There has been little discussion in the press as to why Wolfe had never sued Led Zeppelin or why his Trust is just now taking action, but that decision may be due, in part, to the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Raging Bull copyright infringement case. Traditionally, bringing legal action so long after the initial event could be defended using the legal doctrine of laches, which bars recovery by a plaintiff if there is undue delay in seeking relief. However, the Supreme Court’s recent ruling removes laches as a defense in copyright cases, although monetary recovery is limited to damages based on the prior three years of profits, not the entire span of the infringement.
In order for the Trust to prove copyright infringement, they must prove that there is substantial similarity between the two songs. According to the complaint, “substantial similarity between ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is established because, to a reasonable observer, the iconic notes, melody, chord progression, structure, tempo, instrumentation, and feel of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ sound almost identical to Plaintiff’s protected expression in ‘Taurus.’”
Click on the video below to hear the two songs.
Jimmy Page has discussed in numerous interviews how he allegedly created “Stairway to Heaven saying that he always kept a cassette recorder around, and the idea for “Stairway” came together from bits of taped music. The complaint demands that Page preserve all the recordings that led up to Stairway‘s 1971 release including both studio takes of the song and the earliest bits of the composition. If those tapes contain references to Taurus, they could be important in showing Page’s reliance on the song in creating Stairway, assuming they even still exist.
Page, speaking to France’s Liberation newspaper, called the infringement claim “ridiculous.” None of the other defendants has made any comments on the case.
This case isn’t the first copyright infringement suit for Led Zeppelin but you can be sure that companies like Warner Music Group will fight hard for such a lucrative property. We can expect to see more press coverage of this case as it moves through the court.
List of Led Zeppelin’s Recent Copyright Infringement cases
Interestingly, the Trust’s attorney, Malofiy, has also been in the media spotlight. His behavior in a copyright infringement case for Usher over the song Bad Girl, ended in sanctions by the court. The Judge in that case said, “It is difficult to convey the poisonous atmosphere created by Malofiy’s continual belligerence to opposing counsel,” the judge wrote. Apparently, not only was he abusive, using colorful language in his zeal to obstruct the legal process, but he also made several sexist comments. The Judge even commented on his writings, citing such examples as a filing document titled: “Response in Opposition Re Joint Motion for Sanctions by Moving Defendants Who are Cry Babies.”
The merits of the Stairway to Heaven case will take some time to play out. Copyright infringement suits are rarely short. For cases where delay between the initial infringement and the legal action, is substantial, it becomes difficult to find necessary records, leaving this case to hinge on the substantial similarity between the songs.
Do you think Stairway to Heaven and Taurus are substantially similar? Let us know.