Last year, I wrote a post about a case that was about to be filed challenging the authorship of Led Zeppelin’s rock classic, “Stairway to Heaven.” [http://www.gurwinskeyboard.com/long-ago-far-away-copyright-infringement-claims-raging-bull-stairway-heaven/]. Two weeks after that post, a lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Federal District Court in which the successor-in-interest to the rights of the estate of musician Randy Craig Wolfe, known professionally as “Randy California,” of the band Spirit, sued Led Zeppelin and its members, alleging that the iconic opening passages in “Stairway to Heaven” were lifted from a song called “Taurus” that was previously written and performed by Spirit. Spirit had toured with Led Zeppelin, and the lawsuit alleges that members of Led Zep heard the tune, liked it and incorporated a material portion of it as the beginning of “Stairway.”
The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case discussed in that prior blawg post, stated that the statute of limitations for copyright cases is a “rolling” three-year term. In other words, each act of infringement would start a new three-year statute of limitations. A reissue of “Led Zeppelin IV” was released last year. Significantly, the re-reIease contained newly released studio takes and live tracks, including a remastered track for “Stairway to Heaven.” As a result, the rolling three-year period has not expired, and the Court is allowing this suit to proceed, even though the original composition was written in 1969.
The defendants in the case, entitled Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, et al., previously filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, seeking to have the case dismissed as a matter of law. For those of you who are not lawyers, a “Motion for Summary Judgment” is a motion seeking the court to rule that, as a matter of law, there is no legal basis for a claim. However, this assumes that there are no genuine issues of material facts in dispute. The Court granted the defendants summary judgment on certain of the claims, but it denied the motion on the key claim of copyright infringement. Under copyright law, to win an infringement suit, a copyright plaintiff must prove: 1) that it owns the copyrights in question; and 2) that the defendant copied protected elements of the plaintiff’s work. Since direct copying often cannot be proven, such copying can be inferred if the plaintiff can prove that the defendant had access to the copyrighted work at the time of the alleged infringement and that the two works are “substantially similar.”
Each side brought in their own musicologists to dissect the pertinent musical passages and to opine on whether the two works were substantially similar. Not unexpectedly, each side’s “expert” came to a different conclusion as to the substantial similarity between the two works. As a result, the Court decided that there is a genuine dispute as to the issue of substantial similarity.
There is also another interesting, but less reported, issue in the case. Led Zeppelin claims that Randy California waived his rights to the song “Taurus.” Defendants allege that in 1991, California was interviewed in connection with a new album of Spirit recordings entitled “Time Circle.” In the interview, California was asked about the possibility that Led Zeppelin had copied the opening of “Taurus” for its song “Stairway.” California responded that members of Led Zeppelin “used to come up and sit in the front row of all of [Spirit’s] shows and became friends, and if they wanted to use [“Taurus”], that’s fine.” Later in that same interview, California stated more directly: “I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of “Taurus” for their song without a lawsuit.” The defendants have submitted the original article, audio recordings of that interview and a deposition from the journalist who conducted the interview as evidence in support of their Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that California’s public statements demonstrate his abandonment of any rights to that passage from “Taurus.”
So, on the one hand, Jimmy Paige and Robert Plant are disputing that there is any substantial similarity between the two songs. On the other hand, they appear to be admitting that they ripped it off but claim that they were “authorized” to do so by Randy California. The case will proceed on these issues. It will be interesting to see whether the outcome impacts the reputations of Messrs. Paige and Plant.