If you work in or around the music industry, you’re probably well aware of the fact that Led Zeppelin, one of the most popular bands of all time, has been embroiled in litigation over the writer credits for the band’s iconic megahit “Stairway to Heaven.” In 2014, the estate of guitarist Randy California, a founding member of the band Spirit, as well as another band member, sued Led Zeppelin in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for copyright infringement over the musical similarities between “Stairway to Heaven” and Spirit’s “Taurus.” The lawsuit states that Stairway’s iconic introduction was lifted directly from Taurus, which Led Zeppelin heard while opening for Spirit on several concerts in 1968 and 1969, and seeks monetary damages as well as crediting Randy California as a writer on Stairway to Heaven.While Led Zeppelin was unsuccessful in dismissing the lawsuit, the band succeeded in having the case moved from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, where a federal district judge has slated trial to begin on May 10th, 47 years to the day after Zeppelin performed a concert in Vancouver for a crowd of 4,000. Notably, the band’s defenses in this case don’t deny that Taurus was appropriated, or claim that the songs are dissimilar. Instead, Led Zeppelin claims that the Plaintiffs have no standing to bring this lawsuit in the first place, for three reasons. First, the band asserts that Randy California wrote Taurus as a work for hire, meaning that he created the music pursuant to his contract with Hollenbeck Music and solely on Hollenbeck’s behalf, and therefore never owned the copyright himself. Second, the Defendants argue that California waived any claim to the work in a 1991 interview when he was asked about the similarities between Taurus and Stairway, ultimately responding that “if they wanted to use [Taurus], that’s fine,” and “I’ll let them have . . . Taurus for their song without a lawsuit.” Finally, the members of Led Zeppelin claim that they have been prejudiced by the fact that Plaintiffs waited over 40 years to bring this claim, during which time Stairway to Heaven became one of the highest-earning songs in history, and increasing the amount of damages sought by the Plaintiffs.
This is a case of landmark proportions. The fact that Led Zeppelin, a British band, was found to be subject to personal jurisdiction, first in Pennsylvania and now in Los Angeles, demonstrates that jurisdictional requirements can be met by non-resident musicians simply by marketing and selling records in a particular place. Recent efforts by the parties to settle the case have been fruitless, and we expect the case to proceed to trial roughly a month from now, as scheduled. Stay tuned as the court finally resolves this copyright infringement matter involving one of the most iconic, widely recognizable songs of all time.