How Led Zeppelin Finally Won the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Plagiarism Case
Way back in 2014, when a Pennsylvania attorney filed suit against Led Zeppelin over “Stairway to Heaven,” few could have guessed the case would carry on into the next decade. But that’s exactly how it’s played out over the past six years.
It began with the heirs of Spirit founder Randy California claiming that Zep songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had plagiarized music from “Taurus” for the opening of “Stairway.” In 2016, a jury found that the pair did not infringe California’s copyright while writing the track.
However, the battle did not end there. In 2018, the plaintiffs got awarded a new trial. The second time around, a jury would have listened to the songs back-to-back to assess whether Page and Plant had in fact copied parts of “Taurus.” But on March 9 a court ruled in Zep’s favor before that second trial could begin.
The jury verdict that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was original will stand
When you trace the origins of this lawsuit, you see how it was still kicking almost 50 years after the release of “Stairway” on Led Zeppelin IV (1971). While Randy California (1951-97) was still alive, he described it “a sore point” for him, saying he’d long believed “Stairway” “was a rip-off” of “Taurus.”
However, California (whose real name was Wolfe) never pursued any legal action over his song. And his estate did not move on a lawsuit until two decades after his death. Meanwhile, the particulars of the case had their own complications.
For starters, since the jury at the 2016 trial did not hear the actual recordings, it opened up an angle for the plaintiff to pursue. And it appeared a new trial featuring the recordings would be on the way (likely sometime in 2020).
But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that request. The judges ruled that playing the sheet music of both songs in the copyright office (as opposed to the recordings) was sufficient for a jury to determine their similarity. And thus the music Page composed for “Stairway” sounded original enough.
Led Zeppelin has settled other copyright suits in the past
If you wanted to guess the originality of “Stairway to Heaven,” you might have watched Page and Plant’s reactions and matched how they responded to copyright suits in the past. (There have been several instances of Page and Plant settling with plaintiffs.)
For example, when representatives for Willie Dixon sued over “Whole Lotta Love,” Zep settled. (Plant admitted he’d taken the lyrics verbatim.) And when the original songwriter of “Dazed and Confused” filed suit, Zep settled that suit as well. In both cases, the original artists got payment and credit on the Zep albums.
The same applied to “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You,” a song Joan Baez had covered but hadn’t written. As with “Dazed and Confused,” Page had changed a significant amount, thus making it his own as well. So you’ll find Page’s name on the credits of both tracks.
With “Stairway to Heaven,” Page and Plant seemed determined to go the distance — and they won. While there are similarities between the tracks, you really can’t argue that “Stairway” came from “Spirit.” And that question finally appears settled in 2020.