Led Zeppelin’s classic song “Stairway to Heaven” was at the center of a recent legal battle between the band and the estate of Randy Wolfe, a guitarist for the band Spirit. The lawyer for the estate, Francis Malofiy, argued that the guitar introduction on “Stairway to Heaven” was borrowed from Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus.” Like Led Zeppelin’s song, “Taurus” had a mystical, ambient guitar sound. Malofiy argued that the similarities between the two were due to more than mere coincidence. Before writing “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin had played two sets at concerts at which Spirit was performing. Malofiy used these two instances to suggest that the members of Led Zeppelin must have been familiar with the song “Taurus” and that they lifted its guitar part, inadvertently or intentionally. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the musicians behind “Stairway,” fought back against this claim by denying that either of them had ever heard “Taurus” until the start of this trial in 2014. The musicians went on to explain that they wrote their song by piecing together different riffs and ideas they had developed independently over a series of years. Malofiy sought $40 million dollars to resolve the case.
The jury charged with deciding the outcome of Spirit v. Led Zeppelin ruled that there was insufficient evidence that Led Zeppelin stole Wolfe’s guitar instrumental. The case entered trial on shaky ground, as the judge who permitted it to go on to trial was not convinced that Led Zeppelin had infringed on Wolfe’s work. At the heart of this case was the issue of copyrights. Musicians own the copyrights to the music they produce and have the right to sue anybody who copies, uses, or distributes their work without authorization. Therefore, if Led Zeppelin had in fact repurposed “Taurus” in “Stairway,” they would have infringed on Wolfe’s copyright. This case had an extra layer of complexity because there was a dispute over who even owned the copyright to “Taurus”: Wolfe’s estate or his son. The judge decided that Wolfe’s estate owned the copyright, but the fact that this came up as an issue attests to the complexity of copyright law. Because the jury ruled that there was no infringement, Led Zeppelin did not have to pay any fines or damages.
Spirit v. Led Zeppelin is a historic case in the music industry. On the one hand, this case gave artists new room to create and be inspired without fearing legal retribution. On the other, it may deny copyright owners an effective way to enforce their legal rights. A recently settled case about the 2013 song “Blurred Lines” required Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to pay millions of dollars to Marvin Gaye’s descendants because the song borrowed the vibe of one of his songs. This precedent obviously made many artists worried that they too would become embroiled in legal battles over copyright infringement, but Spirit v. Led Zeppelin gives them some protection. With sampling and borrowing becoming more and more popular in music, this case will certainly help define the line between similarity and infringement.