Talk about a long court battle, the “Stairway To Heaven” plagiarism lawsuit brought about by the estate of the late Randy Wolfe against the members of Led Zeppelin has finally come to an end. It concluded yesterday when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, upholding a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals jury verdict finding the song that the song did not infringe on Wolfe’s “Taurus.”
If you recall, guitarist Randy California (Wolfe) was the lead singer for the band Spirit, who toured with Led Zeppelin during their first U.S. tour in 1968. Wolfe’s estate alleged that Zep members heard Spirit play “Taurus” every night during that tour, and that the chord changes ended up being the basis for “Stairway” in 1971.
The lawsuit case began in 2014, when the Wolfe estate alleged that the opening instrumental riff in “Stairway to Heaven” was actually from “Taurus.” A jury agreed that was the case in 2016, but a panel judges of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals resurrected the case in September 2018. It then found that the judge in the original case had given the wrong instructions to the jury and vacated the judgement. The Wolfe estate then decided to appeal to the Supreme Court for the final decision.
This is good news for songwriters and publishers everywhere, who needed a break after the 2015 “Blurred Lines” decision that ruled that it wasn’t just the lyrics and melody, but the feel of the song that could be plagiarized. If you listen to both “Tauras” and “Stairway” you’ll find similarities in the opening chord changes, but the melodies of each song are totally different.
Songwriters are in big trouble if simple chord changes become copyrightable, since so much Western music uses the same chord structures (especially I-IV-V based songs).
While Led Zeppelin could afford the considerable hit to the pocketbooks if the case had gone against them, it’s the effect on songwriters everywhere that would have taken the real hit.