The U.S. Government Backs Led Zeppelin In Its ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Copyright Infringement Case

The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C., headquarters of the United States Department of Justice (photo: Coolcaesar CC by NA 3.0)
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The Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C., headquarters of the United States Department of Justice (photo: Coolcaesar CC by NA 3.0)
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U.S. Department of Justice Headquarters, Washington, D.C. (photo: Coolcaesar CC by NA 3.0)

More than 120 artists and industry organizations have lent their support to Led Zeppelin in the ongoing copyright infringement case over ‘Stairway to Heaven’.  Now, Zeppelin’s got another unexpected ally.

Over the years, rock legends Led Zeppelin have been the subject of numerous copyright infringement lawsuits.  With the latest suit against them having been ordered to a retrial, more than 120 music artists and organizations have filed what is known as amici brief on behalf of the band.

The filings have expressed their support for Zeppelin’s case and argued that the copyright claims against them are frivolous.

That list now includes the U.S. Government, which emphatically weighed in on the side of Zeppelin in an amicus brief this week.  “The United States has an interest in the proper interpretation of the copyright laws, which foster innovation and creative expression by protecting the rights of authors to profit from their original works while simultaneously allowing the creation and dissemination of new works,” the brief declared.

“The United States has a particular interest in this case because it concerns the legal effect of depositing a complete copy of a work with the Copyright Office, an agency of the federal government, as well as the standard for originality applied by the Copyright Office in examining and registering copyrighted works.”

That standard, according to the government, may be getting abused.  In the filing, members of both the U.S. Copyright Office and U.S. Department of Justice questioned “whether basic musical elements, such as a chord or chromatic scale, may ever be copyrightable, and whether the selection and arrangement of a small number of such elements can be entitled to only ‘thin’ copyright protection, meaning that the copyright is infringed only by virtually identical copying.”

In 2014, one of the descendants of the late Randy Craig Wolfe — who was a member of Spirit and also one of its songwriters — filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin in U.S. federal court, accusing the band of copying the introduction of “Stairway to Heaven” from a guitar riff on a song by Spirit called “Taurus.”

A few years later, when the case went to trial in California, a jury found in favor of Zeppelin after its lawyers demonstrated that the riff in question existed in the public domain and was not a unique, copyrightable element.  But the plaintiffs in the case appealed the verdict, and a 3-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously decided to overturn the decision because the judge in the case gave jurors erroneous information about copyright law.

The technicality kept the highly-controversial case alive, and drew heavy support from the music industry.

Among those expressing their support are Sean Lennon, Korn, Tool and the Songwriters of North America. 123 people and organizations in total have joined the brief, which states that if the case against Zeppelin succeeds, it could hamper musical creativity.

While today Spirit is largely forgotten, at one time they were actually a bigger act than Led Zeppelin, and Led Zeppelin once opened for them.  Later on, Spirit opened for Led Zeppelin (and the rest, as they say, is history).  So, it’s possible that Zeppelin heard Spirit perform “Taurus” before writing “Stairway to Heaven,” though that is difficult to prove.

However, Wolfe, while he was alive, never claimed that Zeppelin had infringed on his copyright, nor did he ever take any legal actions against the band.

The government’s complete filing can be found here.

2 Responses

  1. Victor Levine

    Randy, who was a friend of mine, was much more inspirational than he is credited for. He’s the only musician (I know of) who can legitimately claim to have influenced both Jimi Hendrix (he was lead guitar in Jimi’s pre-fame band) and Led Zeppelin, and he also taught Walter Becker and others how to play tapping-style leads (something he mentioned casually while we were jamming). He was a fluid player with rare talent, and I have no doubt that Zep heard the Taurus riff when they were his opening act, and Randy, who was trained in the jazz tradition of sharing the musical knowledge by his accomplished stepdad and Spirit drummer Ed (Cass) Cassidy, probably showed them exactly how to play it (Stairway is in the same key). Too cosmic for his own good, Randy had no stomach for battling giant egos like Lou Adler (who took all his publishing) and band members who overstated their part of collaborations. Sure, musicians borrow from each other all day every day, but the classy ones give credit where it’s due. The fact that Zep is so greedy they can’t find a way to say thanks to his fatherless son is an embarrassing shame.

  2. Anonymous

    On one hand I don’t want this to happen Becuase it’s wrong on the other the industry sues people like an eager German in 39 when its time to extort somone and then when Katy perry loses a case it’s a big deal becuase it’s them that lost after they set themselves up by doing said acts and passing the laws that made it possible. So I also would like to see zep lose as well out of spite.

    Holy moral dilemma Batman.