One of the most angelic songs of the Classic Rock era, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin, is currently under fire for alleged copyright infringement (or, ‘stealing their tunes, dude’ depending which generation you belong to).
The claim has been brought by the heirs of Randy Craig Wolfe (aka “Randy California”) from the 60’s band, “Spirit”. Never heard of them? Well, perhaps their counter-song “Taurus” was never as popular, but according to the allegations, “to a reasonable observer, the iconic notes, melody, chord progression, structure, tempo, instrumentation, and feel of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ sound almost identical to Plaintiff’s protected expression in ‘Taurus.'”
“Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it really makes me wonder”
It really does…
Randy California, the guitarist for Spirit and a protege of Jimi Hendrix, began his band while still only a teenager – helping to lead the 1960’s psychedelic rock movement. Moreover, as stated in the complaint, Spirit even toured with Led Zeppelin the same year “Taurus” was released.
“There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings“
That’s a pretty big sign. But despite this history together, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin defends his song – written 3 years later – as an original work. Although he ‘just found’ a copy of Spirit’s self-titled album in his record collection to see what this was all about, Plant states listening to the song in 2014 was in fact the first time he’d heard it.
Unfortunately for Led Zeppelin, this is far from the first copyright claim. Below is a chart (as pulled from the complaint) of the many infringement claims brought against the band to date:
“Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.“
Sorry, Robert, but you’re out of time for change. Thanks to the recent Supreme Court case of Petrella v. MGM, the statute of limitations for such a claim resets every instance the song is exploited – known as the “separate accrual theory”:
“… when a defendant commits successive violations, the statute of limitations runs separately from each violation. Each time an infringing work is reproduced or distributed,the infringer commits a new wrong. Each wrong gives rise to a discrete ‘claim’ that ‘accrue[s]’ at the time the wrong occurs.”
So, while the song may be over 40 years old, the plaintiffs’ action is still timely – and as such, are seeking: $150,000 per incident of infringement, punitive damages, equitable relief (including impoundment, destruction, and the halting of sales of infringing material), and for the U.S. Copyright Office to include Randy Craig Wolfe as a writer of “Stairway to Heaven”.