Central District of California Judge Gary Klausner ruled the
founders of rock band Led Zeppelin – and more particularly,
front men Jimmy Page and Robert Plant – must face a jury
trial to determine whether the band's most famous song,
"Stairway to Heaven," infringed a copyright belonging to
the band Spirit.
In 2014, the trustee for the estate of Randy Wolfe –
guitarist and songwriter for Spirit – sued Led Zeppelin,
alleging "Stairway to Heaven" infringes on Spirit's
song "Taurus." There are a variety of comparisons
available, including this one:
"Taurus" was written four years before
"Stairway," and the bands were on tour together and
played the same venue three times during that four-year period in
the late 1960s. But Jimmy Page testified that he never heard
"Taurus" when working on "Stairway" (and, in
fact, heard it for the first time after the lawsuit despite the
record being part of his collection). Page and Plant both appear to
be willing to maintain that there was no access.
But as any casual listener would have to acknowledge, there are
similar notes and chord progressions. Interestingly, Led Zeppelin
front men Jimmy Page and Robert Plant took the legal position that
the "descending chromatic four-chord progression" of
"Stairway," which as the court pointed out is
"arguably the most recognizable and important" part of
the song, was so common as to be not protectable. This was an odd
tack because had Page and Plant won, they might have been unable to
stop others from creating something similar. But Judge Klausner
rejected that argument, holding that the similarities between the
two songs "transcend this core structure." "For
example, the descending bass line in both Taurus and Stairway to
Heaven appears at the beginning of both songs, arguably the most
recognizable and important segments." Klausner held that
"[e]nough similar protectable expression is here that the
issue of substantial similarity should [proceed to the jury]."
Judge Klausner ruled that the Wolfe estate put forth sufficient
evidence that "Stairway to Heaven" copied the constituent
elements of "Taurus" to overcome a summary judgment
motion and go to trial: "What remains is a subjective
assessment of the 'concept and feel' of two works ... a
task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury."
Judge Klausner also rejected Zeppelin's waiver and
abandonment argument. "Stairway to Heaven" was 43 years
old when the suit was brought. During that time, Wolfe never sued,
nor did his mother as the executor of his estate when he died in
1997. The trustee took over the estate in 2006 but waited until
2014, when "Stairway" was remastered and rereleased
– obviously to overcome the statute of limitations. In 1991,
Wolfe gave an interview in which he acknowledged the similarities
between the two songs but said, "I'll let [Zeppelin] have
the beginning of 'Taurus' for their song without a
lawsuit." Zeppelin argued Wolfe's public statement
demonstrated abandonment of his rights. But the Wolfe trustee
proffered evidence that Wolfe did intend to sue Zeppelin, or at the
very least, acted inconsistently with an intent to abandon his
rights. For example, Spirit's bass player testified that in the
late '80s Wolfe was very upset about the alleged theft and
wanted to sue, but was intimidated. Also, a Chicago entertainment
attorney testified that Wolfe consulted with her about the
potential lawsuit in the late '90s. Judge Klausner concluded
that this and other evidence raises triable issues of fact.
Page and Plant also tried to invoke the equitable doctrine of
laches. The court discredited this argument as running afoul of the
Supreme Court's 2014 decision in Petrella, which found
that laches was unavailable in copyright cases when the action is
brought within the three-year statute of limitations. Judge
Klausner reiterated that the plaintiff did so as the defendants
released a new remastered version of "Stairway" in
Jury trial is scheduled for May 10. It will focus on the issues
of access and substantial similarity, as well as ownership of
"Taurus." It will be interesting to see, for the legal
and entertainment communities alike, whether this case will follow
in the footsteps of "Blurred Lines."
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