Stairway to Heaven and copyright infringement

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The music industry is no stranger to cases of copyright infringement, and, the bigger the song, the bigger the litigation. Notably, Procol Harum’s seminal Whiter Shade of Pale was the subject of protracted court proceedings a few years ago. And now, the anthemic Stairway to Heaven, by Led Zeppelin, appears to be heading for the courts.

The success of Stairway to Heaven is hard to overstate. In 2008, Conde Nast Portfolio magazine published an estimate that the song had earned at least $562 million. The story goes that Jimmy Page first picked the chords of what became the band’s signature tune in the Welsh countryside in 1970. However, it is now being argued that the chords were actually first written in 1968 by the guitarist of a relatively unknown Californian band, Spirit, in a song called Taurus. Historians of the Californian music scene in the late 1960s seem in no doubt that the paths of the two bands would have crossed during 1969.

The Spirit guitarist – Randy California – died in 1997 but his estate, to ensure that he gets the credit for Stairway, have instructed solicitors to take the necessary steps on their behalf by instituting copyright infringement proceedings. A Los Angeles district judge has now ruled that there are enough similarities between the two to warrant a jury trial, which has been scheduled for 10 May. In the words of the judge, “While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure”. He added that “What remains is a subjective assessment of the ‘concept and feel’ of two works”, and this was a task that could be effectively discharged by a jury.

Should the estate succeed, it will be entitled to just 50 per cent of any damages awarded owing to a contract California signed in 1967.

This is not the first time Led Zeppelin have faced copyright proceedings with settlements having been reached in respect of a number of other songs, most recently Dazed and Confused, which settled in 2012.