Spotlight On: Stairway To Heaven

Jimmy Page Wiring Patent

Figure 3 from US Patent No. 7,915,506 shows “The ‘Jimmy Page’ modification of the Les Paul wiring, producing several dozen different tones using an additional four switches beyond the single 3-way pickup selector”

  • It has recently been reported (see for example the BBC News here) that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin are being sued in the US for copyright infringement.  The copyright infringement action is apparently being been brought by Michael Skidmore, said to be a trustee for the late guitarist Randy Wolfe of the band Spirit.
  • As a brief reminder, there is infringement of copyright if the alleged copy “copies the whole or a substantial part of” the copyright work.  The allegation is that the rather well known track Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin infringes the copyright in the possibly not so well known track Taurus by Spirit.
  • According to the BBC news item, Led Zeppelin and Spirit toured together in the late 1960s.  According to Wikipedia (which everyone knows is always right ;-)), Taurus was recorded in November 1967 and released in 1968, and Stairway to Heaven was recorded in December 1970 and released in 1971.  So, from that perspective, the dates match up and Stairway to Heaven did follow Taurus (chronologically at least!).  From a quick listen to the tracks, there do seem to be similarities.  It will be interesting to see how the court case progresses.
  • There is a history of cases like this.  A well known example is when George Harrison (ex of the Beatles) was sued for infringing copyright in the track “He’s So Fine” recorded by the Chiffons when he released “My Sweet Lord” in 1970.  George Harrison was held to have infringed the copyright on the basis that he had “subconsciously” copied “He’s So Fine”.  Which was always worrying, because if you did it “subconsciously”, then you obviously have no control over it…  (Though maybe there is a reality check there for musicians: even if you don’t think you have copied someone else’s track, perhaps you do need to sit back and think to yourself whether in fact your stunning new composition is in fact similar to an existing track.  Though on the other hand, so much music, going back hundreds of years, is “inspired by” previous music, and this is precisely how much music develops.)
  • Another example, which seems to have settled before it went to court, is when the rather excellent guitarist Joe Satriani sued a band called Coldplay for infringing copyright in Satriani’s track “If I could Fly” when Coldplay released their quite well known track “Viva La Vida”.
  • But the question on our mind is, why now, for this case?  There can be no doubt surely that the band Spirit and Randy Wolfe in particular were well aware of the track Stairway to Heaven as soon as it was released, and yet apparently took no action at the time.
  • As mentioned, the action seems to being run by the trustee for Randy Wolfe.  That seems to have some parallels to the case last year when Marvin Gaye’s family sued Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for infringing copyright in Marvin Gaye’s track “Got to Give It Up” in their rather huge track “Blurred Lines”.  Marvin Gaye’s family were successful and were awarded nearly $7.4M, which was practically precisely the earnings that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke made from their track.  Possibly that win by Marvin Gaye’s family has encouraged this action against Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

Guest post by Adam Flint, Partner, EIP.

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