The Estate of Randy Wolfe vs Led Zeppelin / Warner Chappell Music, Inc
2020 • Decided • USA, Los Angeles
Claimant Work: Taurus
Defendant Work: Stairway to Heaven
US prog rock band Spirit wrote an instrumental song called Taurus in 1967. It was recorded and released in 1968. In that year and in 1969 Led Zeppelin played four concerts with Taurus. Led Zeppelin wrote and recorded Stairway to Heaven in 1971 and it was released the same year. In 2014 legal proceedings were commenced by lawyers representing Taurus songwriter Randy California, claiming that Stairway To Heaven infringed Taurus.
In 2014 Led Zeppelin planned a remastered reissue of Stairway To Heaven. A Philadelphia lawyer representing the estate of the deceased Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California) sought an injunction against its release, joined by Spirit's bass player Mark Andes.
In addition to claiming copyright infringement, claims are also made for contributory copyright infringement, vicarious copyright infringement, and for equitable relief in granting Randy California a right of attribution as a composer, on account of the claim of "Falsification of Rock n' Roll History".
The jury was asked by Wolfe's lawyer to grant a third of royalties from Stairway to Heaven to the Wolfe estate, but they decided that plagiarism did not occur and the songs were not intrinsically similar.
The ruling from the first trial, given in 2016, found that copying had not been proved. Only the deposit copy of the much abridged score of Taurus was eligible for consideration by the court. Led Zeppelin statement were grateful to the jury for the decision "putting to rest questions about the origins of Stairway to Heaven and confirming what we have known for 45 years."
The Wolfe estate appealed this decision, and in 2018 the federal appeals court of the US Ninth Circuit ruled that the case should be re-heard, finding faults with the original jury instructions and findings, and being unhappy over the imposition of time limits on evidence by the district court.
The new trial began at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in September 2019, and the judges retired to make their decision.
In March 2020 the appeal court in California upheld the original jury finding, and ruled that there should not be a new trial to determine plagiarism.
Case for infringement
The original 2014 case claimed that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant knew the song Taurus from sharing a bill with Spirit in 1968 and 1969, during which time the song was played at the Spirit set, establishing access.
Led Zeppelin even covered a version of a Spirit song Fresh Garbage in their own set.
The original complaint made much of Spirit's influence on Led Zeppelin in 1968 when the two bands toured together. It lists 16 other Led Zeppelin songs that it claims show a "history of lifting composition from blues artists and other songwriters who they have repeatedly failed to credit".
It claims that independent creation of the two songs could not be possible as they are so "strikingly similar". Examples of similarity are given as "the iconic notes, melody, chord progression, structure, tempo, instrumentation, and feel . . .". Some claims appear a little tenuous, such as the fact that Jimmy Page apparently began using a musical instrument called a theremin (probably most recognised for its use in the chorus of Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys) after seeing Spirit using one in their shows. This claim presumably is intended to illustrate that Led Zeppelin were influenced by other aspects of Spirit's music, but the influence could equally have come from the very use by The Beach Boys mentioned above, which was a global number one single. The claim even goes as far as to say that Led Zeppelin's use of Taurus was done "with the knowledge of the infringement and was otherwise willful". They "continue to exploit Taurus as Stairway to Heaven, reaping tremendous financial rewards . . . to the detriment of Plaintiff".
Case against infringement
At the court hearing in June 2016 Jimmy Page stated that he "did not hear Taurus until 2014", and the band asked for the case to be dismissed in a request for summary judgement in March 2016. They claimed that Taurus was a work for hire, meaning that Randy Wolfe did not actually own any copyright to the song himself, but that the rights were in fact owned by the publisher Hollenbeck. They also quoted an interview with Wolfe from 1991 where he stated "I'll let them have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit". The counter-argument in 2014 also claimed that a delay of 43 years in bringing the claim since the release of Stairway To Heaven can put the defendants in a weaker position, a the legal term Laches. The defence document also notes that no deposit copy of Taurus was produced from the Copyright Office, and without this there can be no proof of copying. The evidence of access to Taurus is dismissed as speculative and inadmissible, and no evidence of substantial similarity between the works is offered. Led Zeppelin claim that on the three occasions when they did play together with Spirit, the song Taurus was not performed, and neither did they hear the Spirit performance. In addition Taurus was not "widely disseminated" - it was not a single release and was not played on the radio. Therefore access is not proved.
Addressing the claimed musical similarities, Led Zeppelin argue that it is "limited to a descending chromatic scale of pitches . . . which is so common in music it is called a minor line cliché". They note that the structure of both works bears no similarity, nor any similarity in harmony or melody beyond the descending chromatic scale mentioned. The musicologist for Wolfe failed to produce any evidence of striking similarities between the works. It is further argued that only the music contained in the deposit copy of Taurus can be considered as "the complete copy" of the composition, rather than a recording, for the reason that recordings made before 1972 are not protected under the US Copyright Act.
(California) © Universal Music Publishing Ltd, Performed by Spirit ℗ 1968, Epic Records.
Stairway to Heaven
(Plant/Page) © Warner Chappell North America Ltd, Performed by Led Zeppelin ℗ 1971, Atlantic Records.
In March 2020 the appeals court upheld the original 2016 jury decision that found no breach of the copyright of Taurus in Stairway to Heaven.
The estate of Randy Wolfe may yet appeal to the US Supreme Court for a final ruling.
Timeline of the case in Loudersound.com 2014 court filing on behalf of the Wolfe estate 2016 Led Zeppelin defence document requesting summary judgement 2018 judgement of the Appeals Court finding fault with the 2016 decision. New York Times 2019 article on the start of the second trial