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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Explained: What is the Led Zeppelin ‘Stairway to Heaven’ copyright case?

In 2014, the journalist Michael Skidmore, sued Led Zeppelin for copyright on behalf of Wolfe's estate. The suit sought song-writing credit for Wolfe and damages. Since its release, Stairway to Heaven is estimated to have earned the band over $500m.

Written by Srinath Rao , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai | Updated: October 15, 2020 1:42:42 pm
The surviving members of Led Zeppelin (drummer John Bonham died in 1980) - guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones decided against an expensive settlement out of the court and chose to press ahead with a trial in 2016. (AP Photo)

A six-year-long legal battle over the copyright of one of rock music’s greatest tracks ended this week when the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal over the ownership of the British band Led Zeppelin’s 1971 classic Stairway to Heaven.

A mystic classic

The first time the British band (comprising guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, bassist John Paul Jones and later drummer John Bonham) played their eight-minute-long track at the Ulster hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the crowd was “bored to tears”, reported The Guardian in a 2014 report. Twenty years on from its release in 1971, the song had been supposedly played 2,874,000 times on British radio. According to the same report, it amounted to 44 years’ worth of airtime.

British music writer Stephen Davis best describes what makes Stairway to Heaven so great. In his 1985 book ‘Hammer Of The Gods, Davis wrote, “It expressed an ineffable yearning for spiritual transformation deep in the hearts of the generation for which it was intended. In time, it became their anthem.”

Davis wrote that in December 1970, when the band lived at a country house in Hampshire to record their fourth album Led Zeppelin IV, Page and Jones “finished and wrote” the chord changes to Stairway to Heaven one evening inside a mobile recording studio lent to them by The Rolling Stones. Biographer Stephen Davis noted that Plant wrote most of the lyrics the next day when all four members assembled various sections of the nearly nine-minute-long track. Plant’s lyrics mirrored his reading at that time. Davis wrote that Plant’s inspiration for the lyrics was ‘The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain’, a book published in 1945 by the Scottish poet and occult scholar Lewis Spence.

Looking back at the track, Page told The Guardian in 2014, “It plays with your emotions, entices you in. Stairway’s almost seductive.”

Sued for copyright

The dispute over the song arose in 2014 when Led Zeppelin were accused of stealing portions of the song’s opening riff from Taurus, a song released in 1968 by the American psychedelic band Spirit. Band frontman and Taurus songwriter, the late Randy Wolfe (who was given the moniker Randy California by Jimi Hendrix) only made the accusation public in an interview towards the end of his life. Shortly before his passing in 1997, Wolfe told a magazine, “…and the guys made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘thank you,’ never said, ‘can we pay you some money for it?’ It’s kind of a sore point with me.”

In 2014, the journalist Michael Skidmore, sued Led Zeppelin for copyright on behalf of Wolfe’s estate. The suit sought song-writing credit for Wolfe and damages. Since its release, Stairway to Heaven is estimated to have earned the band over $500m.

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Both bands defend their positions

The surviving members of Led Zeppelin (drummer John Bonham died in 1980) – guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones decided against an expensive settlement out of the court and chose to press ahead with a trial in 2016. Wolfe’s estate sought to show that Plant had picked up the song after watching Spirit perform at a club in Birmingham in 1970.

According to a report in the Guardian, Francis Malofiy, the attorney representing Wolfe estate, told the jury, “This was a song that Randy California had written for the love of his life, Robin. That was her sign, Taurus. Little did anyone know it would fall into the hands of Jimmy Page and become the intro to ‘Stairway to Heaven.”

Page and Plant, both of whom took to the stand during the trial, claimed not to have been familiar with the song, a claim the jury eventually rejected. Page told the court that the disputed chord sequence “been around forever”, even likening it to Chim Chim Cheree, a tune from the 1964 musical ‘Mary Poppins’. He denied having been inspired by either song. Plant said that his memory of the 1970 gig was affected by a serious car crash soon after in the Greek island of Rhodes in which the musician, his wife and daughter and Page’s children were seriously injured.

The fact that the Spirit record was part of Page’s collection did not help back up his claims. The Guardian’s report noted that the jury played both an expert’s version of the rendition of the sheet music of Taurus, which was filed with the US Copyrights Office and a recording of Stairway to Heaven.

Supreme Court ends the dispute

At the end of the six-day-long trial in June 2016, the jury ruled that the Taurus and Stairway to Heaven were not “intrinsically similar”.

Wolfe’s estate appealed the verdict. In 2018, an appeals court in the state of California overturned the earlier order, noting that the trial judge had erred in ruling that “descending chromatic scales, arpeggios or short sequences of three notes” were not protected by copyright. The Court of Appeals also took issue with the fact that in 2016, the jury had not been played a recording of Taurus, which differed from the sheet music version.

In March this year, however, the Court of Appeals concurred with the verdict of the jury in 2016. The only option that left Wolfe’s estate was to approach the US Supreme Court.

Writing in The Guardian, journalist Michael Hann had had the final word as far back as October 2014 : “Certainly, there are similarities in the parts, but it doesn’t diminish the achievement of Stairway to Heaven: the whole song doesn’t stand or fall on that introduction, and whatever verdict is reached in the case, Stairway will remain a colossal achievement. There’s a reason everyone knows Stairway, and not everyone knows Taurus, and it’s not that the might of Zeppelin quashed Spirit.”

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