Stairway to Infringement

A jury recently awarded $7.3 million for copyright infringement of the Marvin Gaye song Got To Give It Up. This verdict surprised many observers because the copyright owned by Gaye protected his arrangement of the notes, or the “sound” of the song, and to most analysts, the new song did not mimic those notes. Instead, it “copied” the song’s style, mood, and “feel” which are not protected by copyright. A further hearing is scheduled and an appeal is possible.

Meanwhile, another suit was filed last fall alleging copyright infringement by the ubiquitous Led Zeppelin song Stairway to Heaven. Spirit went on tour and performed Taurus at a concert in December,  1968. One of the opening acts was Led Zeppelin, then an unknown British band on their first visit to the U.S . Led Zeppelin toured again with Spirit in 1969.

In 1971, Led Zeppelin released Stairway which was too long to be a hit single but nevertheless became wildly popular over the next several years. It received over 3 million radio plays; it is consistently ranked among the top 100 rock’n’roll songs of all time; and it has become the largest selling single piece of sheet music in rock history.

The case is potentially important to the development of music copyright law. Copyright infringement requires proof of copying and “substantial similarity” to the infringed work. When direct evidence of actual copying is not available, as is often the case, proof that the infringer had access to the copied work and that the infringing work is similar to it can be substituted.

The Stairway plaintiff alleges that Led Zeppelin had access to Taurus on the tours and that significant portions of the two songs sound, and compositionally are, nearly identical so direct evidence of actual copying is not necessary. The complaint states further that, “to a reasonable observer, the iconic notes, melody, chord progression, structure, tempo, instrumentation, and feel of Stairway to Heavensound almost identical” to Taurus. Listen to the songs and you be the judge:

Spirit – Taurus (1968)

Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven (1971)


Williams et al. v. Bridgeport Music, Inc. et al., Case No. 2:13-CV-06004-JAK (U.S.D.C. Cal., C.D.)

Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin et al., Case No. 2:14-cv-03089-JS (U.S.D.C. Pa., E.D.)