Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” is certainly one of the the era’s most iconic rock songs but it’s been wrapped up in a lawsuit that can’t seem to come to a close. The estate of the late Randy California of the band Spirit sued the members of Led Zep for stealing parts of “Stairway To Heaven” from a song by Spirit called “Taurus” more than 44 years after the song was written, but the court sided with Zep that in fact the song wasn’t copied in 2016. Last week a federal appeals court overturned that decision, so everyone is headed back to court yet once again.
This all came about from the fact that Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit several times during the band’s first tour of the States. Presumably they heard Spirit perform “Taurus” as part of their set, and the beginning part of that song then made it into “Stairway” a few years and albums later. What’s interesting here is the fact that it took 44 years to bring this lawsuit, and about 15 years after Randy California (real name Randy Wolfe) passed away.
The opening descending chord changes of “Taurus” is indeed similar to “Stairway” but the similarity stops there, and it’s also a very common musical progression, which is what the court decided during the initial trial. The federal appeals court didn’t feel the same way, however, and found that the US district court that decided the first trial was wrong to not allow a recording of “Taurus” to be played during the trial.
So why is California’s estate been pursuing this so hard? It’s been estimated that “Stairway” has earned more than $540 million over the years, so it all comes down to money. And you can be sure that intellectual property attorneys, trial lawyers and expert witnesses will see their share of it as the battle continues.
It just goes to show how tough it is to be a songwriter, especially one with a classic hit.