More than 40 years after releasing what many music aficionados consider to be the greatest classic rock song ever written, Led Zeppelin faces a lawsuit alleging that it was written (in part) by someone else. At issue is the chord progression instantly recognized the world over as the iconic opening to the song “Stairway to Heaven.” The progression is remarkably similar to that used in a song by a band called Spirit, which toured with Zeppelin in the late 1960s. Perhaps inspired by the Supreme Court’s recent “Raging Bull” decision, the estate of Spirit’s lead guitarist filed suit on May 31, 2014, alleging that the legendary song-writing duo of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant copied Spirit’s work.
The Lawsuit Against Led Zeppelin
The suit in question was filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by the estate of Randy Craig Wolfe, also known as “Randy California,” the lead guitar player for Spirit. The lawsuit alleges 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.
Without opining on whether Stairway actually infringes, 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.
Why now? “Raging Bull” and the Doctrine of Laches
It is possible that a month ago, Spirit’s attorneys may have been reluctant to bring this lawsuit, given how ubiquitous Stairway has been on the radio and elsewhere throughout the past four lawsuit-free decades, during the entirety of which Spirit likely knew of the alleged infringement. While copyright claims can be raised as to sales taking place any time in the three years preceding a lawsuit, the doctrine of laches was thought to bar infringement claims that could have been raised far earlier. Laches is an affirmative defense available to bar claims where a plaintiff has unduly delayed in bringing suit.
The face of the Zeppelin suit makes clear that the basis for the claim was known in 1997, and likely much, much earlier. A previously-uncontested, 40-year-old act of alleged infringement would seemingly be the textbook case for a laches defense.
On May 19, 2014, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. that the doctrine of laches did not bar the heir to Frank Petrella, co-author of the screenplay for “Raging Bull,” from bringing a copyright claim against the movie studio capitalizing on the work, despite the fact that she knew of the potential for a copyright claim for nearly two decades. The Court, through Justice Ginsburg, stated that “in face of a statute of limitations enacted by Congress, laches cannot be invoked to bar legal relief.” For the attorneys representing a party holding a 40-year-old potential copyright claim against work that continues to net Led Zeppelin millions of dollars each year, the Court’s holding had to be music to their ears.
Remaining Challenges for Spirit
Just because Zeppelin may not have an affirmative defense of laches does not mean that Wolfe’s estate has a smooth path to success. The estate’s attorneys will still have to establish, among other things, that chord progressions are copyrightable and that anything copied from Taurus should not be considered a de minimus use, too minor to be actionable.
Interestingly, this is far from the first time that Led Zeppelin has faced copyright infringement claims. 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. A similar result is not unlikely in this case.