Led Zeppelin’s legendary song “Stairway to Heaven” is just a few years shy of its golden jubilee anniversary, but it has another event coming up that is far less pleasant. U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner of the Central District of California has denied the English rock group’s motion for summary judgment in a copyright infringement claim over it, meaning that a jury will be tasked with deciding whether it copied from “Taurus,” a song by a band called Spirit.
Michael Skidmore, a trustee of Spirit band member Randy Wolfe, filed suit in 2014, alleging that Led Zeppelin stole parts of the song when the group and Spirit played the same venues in the 1960’s. Led Zeppelin, who was opening for Spirit at the time, even began to cover Spirit songs in their own sets. Guitarist Jimmy Page, the suit claims, “grew familiar with ‘Taurus’ and the rest of Spirit’s catalog. Page stated in interviews that he found Spirit to be ‘very good’ and that the band’s performances struck him on an ‘emotional level.’” Skidmore also pointed out that Wolfe, who died in 1997, had spoken about the similarities before, and had openly accused Led Zeppelin of stealing the song, and said that Spirit never received any credit or payment.
Earlier this year, Page gave a declaration in court – as part of the motion for summary judgment – stating that he discovered a copy of Spirit’s first album in his collection, but he didn’t know when or how it got there. He also indicated that it couldn’t have been there for very long, and that he only heard “Taurus” for the first time in 2014. The motion claimed that Spirit never played “Taurus” when Led Zeppelin opened for them. The defendants had asked that the suit be dismissed on several grounds, but never said the songs weren’t similar. (In fact, they even point out that Wolfe was okay with the similarity once.) Their main assertion was that “Taurus” was a work-for-hire for Ode Records and Hollenbeck Music and, therefore, neither Wolfe nor Skidmore held the copyright. This would mean that Skidmore doesn’t have grounds to sue over the song. The defendants also asked that the judge dismiss the case because of laches – Skidmore had unreasonably delayed in filing suit, and the delay had adversely impacted the defendants, in this case, deaths of witnesses, lost evidence, and memory lapses.
In the 20-page opinion that dismissed the motion in part, Judge Klausner said that while the descending four-chord progression in both songs was common in music, there were other similarities that “transcend this core structure.” He cited the famous descending bass line at the beginning of “Stairway to Heaven,” which is also present in “Taurus.” He said it was “played at the same pitch, repeated twice, and separated by a short bridge in both songs.” He thought it raised questions a jury needed to answer.
To prove a copyright infringement claim, a plaintiff has to show: 1) ownership and 2) copying. Copying is shown by proving: 1) access to the copyrighted work and 2) substantial similarities between the works. Here the defendants did raise rightful ownership as an issue, so we should expect to see that reappear at trial. In terms of copying, will the 1960’s tour relationship qualify as access? Will the jury find that those bass lines are substantially similar enough to be infringement?
Just last year, a jury awarded Marvin Gaye’s estate millions after finding that Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” copied from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” In light of that case, it will be interesting to see how another copyright case in California over a huge song plays out.
Stay tuned to The Fried Firm blog to find out what happens with “Stairway to Heaven.”