Stealing a Stairway to Heaven?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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The opening riff of Led Zeppelin’s 1971 hit song “Stairway to Heaven” is immediately recognizable to any rock-and-roll fan.

However, the children of Randy California (born Randy Craig Wolfe), a founding member of the psychedelic/prog-rock band Spirit, have claimed that the riff was originally created by their father.

(California got his stage name from Jimi Hendrix, who called him Randy California to distinguish him from another Randy in his band.)

California’s heirs claim that Led Zeppelin stole the riff from California’s song “Taurus.” They’re seeking a shared songwriter credit for California on “Stairway,” as well as compensation for copyright infringement due to the alleged plagiarism.

The two riffs can be compared via links in this NPR story.

California complained in a 1996 magazine interview that Led Zeppelin had stolen his song:

“I’d say it was a ripoff. And the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘Thank you,’ never said, ‘Can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it.

California died in 1997, while rescuing his 12-year-old son from a rip-tide in Hawaii.

Led Zeppelin toured with, and opened for, Spirit at concerts starting in 1968, the year that “Taurus” was released.

The lawsuit seeks early recordings of the Led Zeppelin song to show how it was developed.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page called the plagiarism accusation “ridiculous.”

The Story of “Stairway”

According to rock legend (and Bloomberg Businessweek), Page holed up in a stone cottage in Wales in 1970, with no electricity or running water, and created the basis for “Stairway” by candlelight.

Later, at another house, his band reportedly sat around a fire fueled by an actual stairway bannister as they continued work on the song.

Jurisdiction and Profits

The copyright case was filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Led Zeppelin’s members challenged the court’s right to hear the case:

The individual defendants are British citizens residing in England, own no property in Pennsylvania and have no contacts with Pennsylvania, let alone ties sufficient to render them essentially at home here.

The plaintiffs countered that the band members:

make millions of dollars from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by directly targeting this district for the exploitation of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ through CD sales, digital downloading, radio and television play, advertising, marketing, concert performances, other performances, licensing, and otherwise targeting resident individuals and businesses to profit off the exploitation of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’

Led Zeppelin recently re-issued a deluxe version of the untitled album known as Led Zeppelin IV, containing a re-mastered version of “Stairway to Heaven” and a previously unreleased mix of the song.

The deluxe CD reached #3 for CD and vinyl sales on Amazon, and #1 for rock. The earlier version of the album sold 23 million copies – more than any album except Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-75).

By 2008, “Stairway” had reportedly earned at least $562 million for Led Zeppelin, in part because the band refused to release it as a single (forcing fans to buy the whole album).

The band has previously settled several other cases involving allegations of intellectual property infringement.

Bringing a Music Plagiarism Case

As many music experts have pointed out, there are only so many notes and chords and only so many ways to combine them. Thus, two songs may sound similar even if one composer never even heard, let alone copied, the work of another.

If you believe that your own song was copied by another musician, you may want to consult a copyright attorney.  

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