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Will Spirit Earn Its “Stairway to Heaven”?

A debate has raged for years as to whether the infamous English rock band Led Zeppelin in its guitar intro to “Stairway to Heaven” infringed the copyright of the song “Taurus” by the American rock band Spirit. It has been alleged that Jimmy Page borrowed the descending guitar line from “Taurus” for Led Zeppelin’s signature song “Stairway to Heaven”.

Spirit’s song “Taurus” is a rock instrumental, originally released on Spirit’s self-titled debut album in 1968. The track was composed by guitarist/singer Randy “California” and recorded in November 1967.  

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is a song released in late 1971. It was composed by guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant for the band’s untitled fourth studio album (often called Led Zeppelin IV). It is often referred to as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

After a two year court battle, the decision is now in the hands of a California jury. In May 2014, Michael Skidmore, executor of deceased Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe’s trust, filed suit against Led Zeppelin’s surviving members, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones, as well as Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records. The case is: Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin et al., case number 2:15-cv-03462, U.S. District Court in the Central District of California. Skidmore has asked the jury to award Wolfe an equal share of the songwriting credit for the hit song “Stairway to Heaven”. A successful outcome for Skidmore would potentially result in a share of the $58.5 million Led Zeppelin has earned from the song since its inception ($3 million of which has been earned in just the last five years).

In order to succeed on his copyright claim, Skidmore must show not only the existence of a valid copyright, but that the members of Led Zeppelin had access to the song “Taurus” and that the two songs (or at least the key portions) are substantially similar. These legal hurdles have posed several challenges for Skidmore. While the finger-picked guitar introductions appear quite similar, Skidmore apparently was unable to play the song “Taurus” for the jury since the copyright at issue covers only the sheet music “deposit copy” lodged with the U.S. Copyright Office. Secondly, despite the alleged fact that Led Zeppelin is claimed to have opened for Spirit in 1968 at a concert in Denver, as well as the alleged facts that Page owns Spirit’s album and Plant saw the band perform in Birmingham, England in 1970, none of the members of Led Zeppelin claim to have any memory of the band Spirit or the song “Taurus”, never met the group’s members, and were not aware of the similarities in the two songs until recently. It was also argued that the chord progression is similar to many songs and not unique to Spirit’s song.

It will be interesting to see how the iconic song “plays” with the jury and whether Skidmore and Wolfe find a “Stairway to Heaven.”

DISCLAIMERThe information provided is for general informational purposes only. This post is not updated to account for changes in the law and should not be considered tax or legal advice. This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided is for general informational purposes only. This post is not updated to account for changes in the law and should not be considered tax or legal advice. This article is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with legal and/or financial advisors for legal and tax advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

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