Led Zeppelin’s 1971 epic “Stairway to Heaven” is widely regarded by music critics as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. It’s also been one of the most profitable. Clocking in at nearly eight minutes long, the band refused to release the song as a single, which forced fans to shell out more cash to buy the album it appeared on. When coupled with the song’s substantial royalties from radio play, “Stairway to Heaven” has earned at least $562 million over the years. Much of that fortune has been paid to the song’s credited composers, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and lead singer Robert Plant.
But a new lawsuit filed 43 years after the song’s release could see a third name tacked onto its songwriter list. In 1968 the psychedelic rock band Spirit released an album that contained a brief instrumental track entitled “Taurus.” The song is a dreamy collection of several different melodies, including a short acoustic guitar riff that sounds an awful lot like the iconic opening notes to “Stairway to Heaven.” The composer of “Taurus,” Spirit guitarist Randy California, never approached Led Zeppelin about the two songs’ similarities. However, plenty of other artists have taken legal action against the band for the appropriation or outright theft of their music. Led Zeppelin classics like “Dazed and Confused” and “Whole Lotta Love” have been subject to lawsuits, and in both cases the band had to give royalty rights and songwriting credits to the plaintiffs.
Now “Stairway to Heaven” will get its day in court as well. Although Randy California died in 1997, a trust formed on his behalf by Spirit bassist Mark Andes sued Led Zeppelin in May 2014 for rights and royalties to the classic song. Andes points to an early tour his band took with Led Zeppelin as evidence that they were aware of “Taurus.” Led Zeppelin’s history of stealing other artists’ compositions doesn’t do their defense any favors, either. If the lawsuit is successful, Andes’ trust stands to make a windfall settlement. Led Zeppelin recently re-released their entire catalogue, potentially adding millions of dollars to the band’s already enormous fortune.
- Will the length of time passed and the creator’s death impact the lawsuit?
- If the judgment is unfavorable to Led Zeppelin, what could be at stake?
Source: Vernon Silver, “Stairway to Heaven: The Song Remains Pretty Similar,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, May 15, 2014. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs.