Did Led Zeppelin really climb the Stairway to Heaven? Or does the Spirit of the song lie elsewhere?

Led Zeppelin is not the author of “Rock’s greatest song” – alleges a law suit filed against iconic rock band Led Zeppelin.

In May this year, the estate of Randy California who was a founding member of the eclectic rock band Spirit filed a quirky pleading (the typeface in the sections headings of the pleading mimicking that used for Led Zeppelin album covers) alleging that the famous guitar riff in “Stairway to Heaven” is a copycat of Randy California’s “ethereal yet classical guitar composition” known as “Taurus” – a unique composition which featured on Spirit’s self-titled 1968 album.

The complaint, filed in the United States District Court Eastern District of Pennsylvania – which alleges direct copyright infringement in addition to some more novel claims such as “Falsification of Rock N’Roll History” – says that “it is no coincidence that the iconic notes to ‘Stairway to Heaven’, that have enthralled generations of fans, sound almost exactly the same” as “Taurus”. Indeed, late in 1968 in Led Zeppelin’s early days, the band was the opening act for Spirit where it is alleged that Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin’s guitarist and the first defendant in the proceedings) was heavily influenced by Spirit’s music, going so far as to cover Spirit’s songs, including one known as “Fresh Garbage” which was on the same album side as “Taurus”.

The complaint goes further to allege that Led Zeppelin is notorious for “lifting composition from blues artists and other songwriters who they have repeatedly failed to credit”, identifying 17 songs apparently infringing copyright.

Unsurprisingly, Jimmy Page has labelled the allegation “ridiculous”, yet this week the defendants were dealt a blow with their motion to dismiss the suit or move it to California, saying Philadelphia isn’t an appropriate venue, being denied by Judge Juan Sanchez of the Philadelphia Court.

The matter therefore remains very much alive, despite it having taking so many years for the suit to be filed. Yet, as experience in other jurisdictions has proven, such delay is not necessarily fatal to a case of copyright infringement. A parallel might be drawn to the Australian litigation concerning Men at Work’s “Down Under” which was released in 1981. It took 26 years before the public became aware (courtesy of TV show Spicks and Specks, followed by hard fought litigation that went all the way to the Full Federal Court), that the introductory flute riff from such a massive hit song was sourced from “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree”. Our earlier post on this topic is here.

Whether Randy California will have similar success remains to be seen; for now, the source of the “spirit” of “Stairway to Heaven” is up for debate. Listen to the two songs here to make your own assessment.