Earlier this year, news surfaced that someone claimed Led Zeppelin had stolen parts of their famous song “Stairway to Heaven” from another tune.
Randy California, guitarist and songwriter for the band Spirit, had said in the past that “Stairway” was a ripoff of a song by his own band, an instrumental tune called “Taurus”.
Randy California died in a drowning accident in 1997. But his heirs are now bringing suit against Led Zeppelin over the matter.
The whole affair is complicated by the fact that Spirit gigged with Led Zeppelin back in 1969, playing “Taurus” in their sets. “Taurus” is only about two and a half minutes long, has no lyrics or solo.
“Stairway” was released on the Led Zeppelin IV album in late 1971. It was never released as a single, but was played from the LP by disc jockeys. It is about eight minutes long, has lyrics, and features a legendary guitar solo.
Now that battle is making its way to court. A judge in Pennsylvania will hear the case. But why Pennsylvania?
“The only thing that I can really think of is that the lawyer for the plaintiff is based in Pennsylvania,” Eriq Gardner of The Hollywood Reporter said.
“If the plaintiffs wanted to have a tactical advantage, they probably would’ve sued in Nashville — the songwriter capital of the world,” Gardner says. “And if they wanted this to be convenient for the parties, they would’ve sued in California where a lot of the plaintiffs and witnesses are, as well as a lot of the music defendants.”
Since the case is being fought somewhere outside the usual venues for copyright infringement cases, where judges have some familiarity with what to look for to determine whether a song is a ripoff or not, the judge in this case could have little knowledge of what to listen for.
“That adds the wildcard factor to this,” Gardner says. “No one knows what a judge in Pennsylvania is going to say. I mean, [in] Pennsylvania, there’s very few cases that have examined copyright infringement in songcraft.”
There are some slight similarities between parts of the two songs. But it sounds like a matter of a borrowed arpeggiated phrase that was worked into an entirely different piece, not a wholesale lifting of a song, which Zeppelin has been found guilty of before.
If the suit ends up before a judge in Pennsylvania who does not realize that phrases like this end up in lots of songs, with no one getting accused of stealing, things could get hairy for Led Zeppelin. The defense needs to start collecting tunes with similar phrasing, especially ones that pre-date “Taurus”.