On May 31, 2014, members of the band Led Zeppelin and its publishers were sued for copyright infringement by Randy California, the former guitarist and front man of the band Spirit. The lawsuit, filed in the state of Pennsylvania, alleges that a significant portion of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was stolen from “Taurus,” a song written by Mr. California when he was with Spirit.
Claiming that a Pennsylvania court lacks jurisdiction over the band’s three British citizens, Led Zeppelin challenged jurisdiction and, in the alternative, argued that the lawsuit should be Going to California, Over the Hills and Far Away, where venue would be more appropriate. (Put another way, they sang the Immigrant Song.) The court denied Led Zeppelin’s motion, leaving the band Dazed and Confused. Accordingly, The Song Remains the Same.
While the decision has undoubtedly been a Heartbreaker for the band, failure to have the case dismissed or transferred is really only a minor setback. It’s not yet time to lead Stairway to Heaven to the Gallows Pole. The case will simply go forward in Pennsylvania, Wearing and Tearing its way to trial.
Led Zeppelin’s predicament is not a new one for musicians. In 1971, music publishing company Bright Tunes alleged that George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was a copy of the Chiffons’ hit “He’s So Fine.” During the litigation, George Harrison testified that he had not noticed any similarities between the two songs until other people started pointing them out, but he also admitted that he had been aware of the Chiffon’s hit before he wrote “My Sweet Lord.” Ultimately, the court ruled that, although Harrison did not intentionally plagiarize the song, Mr. Harrison had “subconsciously” copied substantial portions and incorporated them into “My Sweet Lord.” The court then ordered Harrison to pay to Bright Tunes three quarters of the royalties he had received from sales of his song.
Bright Tunes should be ringing in Led Zeppelin’s ears. “Taurus” was released on Spirit’s debut album in 1968. Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit on their 1969 tour, and later released Stairway to Heaven in 1971. (It is fair to question why Spirit did not raise a claim for copyright infringement within the last 43 years. Perhaps they were occupied with Somethin’ Else.) As the opening act for Spirit on the 1968 tour, it appears likely that Led Zeppelin probably had heard “Taurus” prior to writing “Stairway.” The band therefore might face a fate similar to George Harrison’s – a finding of “subliminal” infringement similar to the outcome in Bright Tunes. Based on the royalty award in Bright Tunes, it no doubt will be Celebration Day for Spirit if they successfully prove a case for copyright infringement.
Rock and Roll. That’s the Way. But I don’t want to Ramble On.