It’s a story that never gets old: the small-town attorney goes after the massive corporation. Only in this case, the massive corporation is the famous rock band Led Zeppelin. And the fight is over one of the most iconic songs of all time: Stairway to Heaven.
According to the recent lawsuit, filed in 2014 in Los Angeles, California, the writers of the famous song, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, allegedly missappropriated the iconic opening arpeggio from a song called Taurus, by a much more obscure band called Spirit.
According to the lawsuit, Taurus was released in 1968. Towards the end of that same year, Led Zeppelin was just starting to make a name for itself. They played with Spirit in their first U.S. concert in Denver, Colorado, although it’s not clear whether Spirit played Taurus that night. Either way, Stairway to Heaven was released three years later and Randy Wolfe’s name was nowhere to be found in the credits.
Wolfe, who went by the stage name Randy California, was a guitarist and the writer of Taurus. He died in 1997, but before his death, he had said in interviews that he felt cheated because he had never been given credit for Led Zeppelin’s famous song. When Wolfe died, his song rights went into a trust that is currently overseen Mick Skidmore, a former fellow music writer.
Skidmore agreed with the claim that Wolfe should have been given credit for Stairway to Heaven, and a cut of the massive royalties to go along with it, but he felt the case was hopeless. He was discouraged from going up against Led Zeppelin, which has acquired a massive fortune, and continues to do so through royalties for their songs. Skidmore said he just doesn’t have the resources to take them on in court.
Francis Malofiy, an attorney based in a suburb of Philadelphia, convinced Skidmore to take on the case. He pointed to several similar lawsuits Led Zeppelin has faced from other songwriters. Some of them have been abandoned or dismissed, but a number have resulted in the successful reattribution of credit for many different Led Zeppelin songs.
Led Zeppelin and their attorneys deny the charges, claiming the only similarity is a descending chromatic scale, which has been known for centuries and is too common to be protected by any copyright laws. Page, now 72 years old, said he was familiar with the musical structure before encountering Spirit’s music, and that he had heard it in Chim Chim Cher-ee from the soundtrack of Mary Poppins. Malofiy derisively calls this the Marry Poppins defense.
Malofiy’s biggest hurdle in filing the lawsuit came from the three-year statute of limitations. Fortunately for Malofiy, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that there is no end date for seeking damages on copyright claims, but that back payments are limited to earnings from the previous three years.
Stairway to Heaven is still an immensely popular song that has earned approximately $500 million. To determine how much Wolfe’s trust could potentially receive, Malofiy pointed to a 2008 contract between Page and Plant and Warner/Chappell Music, in which the songwriters get paid $60 million over a ten-year period in exchange for the right to use Stairway to Heaven, among other songs. Malofiy estimates Wolfe was entitled to two-thirds of that, which would be $40 million.
If Malofiy wins or settles the case, Skidmore has pledged the money (after paying fees to Malofiy) to the Randy California Project, a charity that provides education and instruments to needy students in Ventura, California (Wolfe’s home town) and Quincy, Massachusetts (Skidmore’s home town).
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