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Posted on Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Stairway to the Courthouse?

Led Zeppelin’s 1971 hit “Stairway to Heaven” is one of the most popular and recognizable rock songs of all time. With a re-release of the original Led Zeppelin albums planned for this summer, however, a Philadelphia attorney has expressed his intention to bring a copyright infringement lawsuit against the band over the true origin of Stairway’s iconic introduction.

That attorney represents the trust of the late Randy California, formerly the guitarist of the band Spirit, as well as Spirit bassist Mark Andes. In 1968 and ‘69, Spirit and Led Zeppelin performed several concerts together that featured one of Spirit’s instrumental tracks, called “Taurus.” Allegations that Stairway’s introduction was lifted from “Taurus” are nothing new; in the mid-1990s, California, who wrote “Taurus,” publicly stated that “[Stairway] was a ripoff,” and that “[Led Zeppelin] made millions of bucks on it and never said ‘thank you.’” But the impending re-release of Led Zeppelin IV has certainly provided a financial incentive to bring the suit sooner than later.

In addition to being the best-selling piece of sheet music in rock history (having sold over 1 million copies since its release), Stairway is also one of the most profitable. As of 2008, Stairway to Heaven had earned at least $562 million, a number that has undoubtedly grown over the last few years and stands to grow even further if all goes as planned with the digitally remastered re-releases this summer.

The lawsuit will allege copyright infringement and will also try to enjoin the re-release unless Randy California is given a writing credit on the song. Although it may seem unusual to add a writer credit over 40 years after Stairway’s release, this is not unfamiliar territory for Led Zeppelin. Album listings for some of the band’s other big hits including “Whole Lotta Love,” “The Lemon Song,” and “Dazed and Confused” have all been amended to include the names of artists which courts ruled were the true originators of the music as a result of past lawsuits, showing Zeppelin’s history of settling cases like this.

Although there is a three-year statute of limitations for copyright infringement, Stairway to Heaven is such a profitable song that back royalties for just the last three years would be significant, not to mention potential for a spike in profits following the re-release. In the end of this tune, don’t be surprised if Led Zeppelin settles this case in an effort to avoid the Stairway to the Courthouse.

Frank Gulino is an award-winning composer and attorney with Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. He can be reached at FGulino@BerenzweigLaw.com.

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