Four Decades After Its Release, “Stairway To Heaven” May Be Litigated

We here at Abnormal Use love music, especially the classics of the good ‘ole days.  Understandably then, our attention has been drawn to the recent controversy involving Led Zeppelin’s 1971 hit “Stairway to Heaven.”  To quickly summarize, the estate of Randy California of the band Spirit has recently claimed that Zeppelin plagiarized his song “Taurus”—or more specifically, the universally recognized opening chords that introduce the Zeppelin smash hit.

We are surprised by the claim and likely pending lawsuit for several reasons.  First, “Stairway to Heaven” was released in 1971. Again, 1971!  Can California’s estate bring this claim more than forty years after the alleged rip-off?  According to the Supremes (get it?), yes.  The United States Supreme Court recently held that no delay is too long when it comes to bringing a copyright infringement suit.  Just as an FYI, the case involved a dispute over the screenplay of Raging Bull.  Classics overload in this blog post.  In any event, the decision confirms that yes, California’s estate can bring a lawsuit up to three years after an infringing act, which essentially sets up a rolling cause of action.   Led Zeppelin is gearing up to release a new version of its iconic album Led Zeppelin IV, which provides the estate with its infringing act.

Secondly, where do we draw the line between paying tribute and flat-out plagiarism?  They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  The problem may lie by Zeppelin’s failure to give the proverbial “shout out” to California or Spirit.  According to Forbes, the band has a long history of appropriating songs and chords without crediting the original artists.  In fact, the band has settled or defended copyright cases over “The Lemon Song,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “Dazed and Confused.”  Perhaps Aloe Blacc’s track “The Man” provides guidance.   The song clearly pays homage to Elton John’s hit “Your Song” in its chorus, which repeats “you can tell everybody” in a similar fashion to John’s.   However, on his production company’s website, Blacc and the producers have provided the credits for the song, including crediting an interpolation from “Your Song” by John.  For his part, Sir Elton is loving Blacc’s track, noting that the influence means his music is still relevant and it gave him a “big kick up the bum.”  What a cheeky fellow.

We will see how this story develops in light of Zeppelin’s upcoming album release.  In any event, it is undeniable that the opening riff to “Stairway to Heaven” is iconic, often-emulated, and frankly, maybe even overplayed?  Party on, Wayne.