Jury Hands Zeppelin a Heavenly VictoryJun 24, 2016 Copyright Infringement
In Robert Plant’s world, all that glitters is not gold, and all that sounds like another artist’s work is not stolen from that artist. Fortunately for Plant and his Led Zeppelin bandmates, a Los Angeles jury agreed. That jury found on Thursday that the estate of Randy Craig Wolfe, the lead guitar player for a Zeppelin contemporary, Spirit, had not proved that the iconic opening guitar riff to “Stairway to Heaven” was lifted from Spirit’s “Taurus.”
The suit alleged that Led Zeppelin copied parts of Stairway from Spirit’s single, “Taurus.” Wolfe, who wrote Taurus, stated prior to his death that “it was a rip-off” of his music. His estate now seeks damages and writing credit for Wolfe.
After listening to Taurus, it is safe to say that even casual fans of Zeppelin’s work can likely identify the chords that Wolfe believed Zeppelin to have “ripped off.” There is also little question that Page and Plant had access to Spirit’s work. Between 1968 and 1969, the two bands played five shows together. Spirit played “Taurus” at each of those shows.
The Jury’s Findings
Indeed, the jury expressly found that members of Led Zeppelin had heard “Taurus.” Nonetheless, a half-an-hour after listening to both songs one last time, the jurors issued their verdict that the songs lacked substantial similarity in their extrinsic elements.
Wolfe’s estate has already vowed to appeal the decision, perhaps based on U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner’s refusal to allow the jury to hear alternative versions of Spirit playing “Taurus.” Judge Klausner ruled that the jury should not hear these recordings because Wolfe’s copyright extended only to the sheet music filed with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Vindication of Oft-Accused Artists
Thursday’s verdict comes as something of a vindication for a band that has repeatedly faced copyright infringement claims and accusations. The opening lyrics for “Whole Lotta Love” are remarkably similar to the final verse of the Muddy Waters song “You Need Love.” “The Lemon Song” contains a number of lyrics similar to Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor,” a song Zeppelin played routinely during the same 1968-1969 American tour in which it opened five shows for Spirit. Copyright infringement suits related to both of these works, as well as several others, resulted in out-of-court settlements and song-writing credit given to the plaintiff. “Stairway” is the first song over which the band has litigated infringement claims through trial.
[Note: This post was authored by Jason Horst.]