Posted on 4/19/2016 12:48:04 AM By Alexis Payne

The heirs of guitarist Randy Wolf, former member of the band Spirit, sued members of Led Zeppelin and associated record labels for myriad claims, the most significant of which is copyright infringement. Wolf’s heirs allege Led Zeppelin copied significant elements of Wolf’s 1968 instrumental titled “Taurus” in Led Zeppelin’s infamous “Stairway to Heaven” recording.

Under U.S. copyright law, Wolf’s heirs must prove “(1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.” To determine if there has been infringement, courts examine (1) if the infringing work is “substantially” similar to the copyrighted work, and (2) whether the alleged infringer had access to the copyrighted work. So in this case, the similarities between the songs and whether Led Zeppelin had access to (e.g., “heard”) “Taurus” before writing “Stairway to Heaven” are key issues.

Led Zeppelin filed a motion for summary judgment alleging numerous arguments, running the gamut from procedural to substantive. In its recently issued 20-page opinion, the California court granted summary judgment on certain claims and against others.

On the key copyright issues of substantial similarity and access, the court found triable issues of fact. Evidence presented showed both bands played at the same venues on the same days, as well as other circumstantial evidence supporting a finding of access. As for substantial similarity, the extensive battle of the parties’ rosters of expert witnesses left little room for the court to deny the existence of an issue of fact.

Led Zeppelin also moved for summary judgment on the following affirmative defenses: abandonment/waiver, laches, and defective deposit copy with the U.S. Copyright Office. The court found there was an issue as to abandonment/waiver because evidence showed Wolf had publicly commented on similarities between the songs and stated he had no intention of suing for copyright infringement. As for laches, the court denied this defense because the suit was filed within three years of the release of a 2014 remastered version of “Stairway to Heaven.” Lastly, the court rejected the defective deposit defense, finding the missing Library of Congress seal on the copyright registration for “Taurus” didn’t nullify the registration.

Wrapping things up, the court granted summary judgment on the right of attribution claim, finding the claim was limited to visual works of art. The court also determined that Wolf’s heirs were limited to 50% of any awarded damages as a beneficial owner of the copyright and that there was an issue regarding ownership of the copyright in connection with Wolf’s songwriter’s agreement. And the court deemed summary judgment appropriate for certain named defendants on statute of limitations grounds.

So is rock ‘n’ roll history bound to be rewritten? Will “Stairway to Heaven” be stripped of its identity as one of the most iconic songs from the 1970’s (a “stairway to hell”-acious scenario)? Will Led Zeppelin’s 1995 indoctrination into the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame be forever tarnished? Unlikely, but the case is headed for trial in May unless the parties settle. So set your radio dials and stay tuned…

Here is a link to the court’s opinion on the motion for summary judgment. 

Verdict Update: It looks as if music history will not be rewritten and Led Zeppelin will retain its iconic status as the author and copyright owner of the famous song “Stairway to Heaven.” Thursday, a California jury found the band did not infringe the copyright to the song “Taurus.” The jury found that Wolfe’s estate failed to show that “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” were substantially similar- a “heavenly” result for the defendants.