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Led Zeppelin on 'Stairway to Heaven' Plagiarism

A long time ago there was a very long song that went on and on and it still won't go away. Jimmy Page, guitarist and songwriter for Led Zeppelin, this week testified in a California court regarding the iconic "Stairway to Heaven," the originality of which has been challenged by the heirs of Randy Craig Wolfe from a band called Spirit.

Wolfe's heirs say that Led Zeppelin's song resembles an instrumental title called "Taurus" by Spirit, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Page admitted during testimony that he did find a copy of Spirit's album in his record collection but said that he did not know he owned it and that he didn't hear the song in question until 2014. He released "Stairway to Heaven" in 1971 and denies plagiarizing Spirit's 1968 song.

Rewriting Rock History

Page, along with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, have moved to dismiss the action by Wolfe's heirs. But most of the band's arguments do not address the merits, or the plagiarism question. Instead, the main argument, according to The Hollywood Reporter, is that the Wolfe Trust has no standing to sue.

Specifically, Led Zeppelin argues that Spirit had no copyright for "Taurus" because it was a work for hire based on Wolfe's 1967 recording contract with Hollenbeck Music. That company hired Wolfe as a songwriter for hire "with full rights of copyright renewal vested in [Hollenbeck]."

Led Zeppelin has also argued that Wolfe waived any claim to ownership of this song. In a 1991 interview when the similarity of the song was brought up, Wolfe said, "If they wanted to use [Taurus] that's fine," and "I'll let them have ... Taurus for their song without a lawsuit."

The third argument that Led Zeppelin puts forward that does not address the merits of the claim -- whether their classic song is a copy of Spirit's -- is laches, or that the delay of the lawsuit has prejudiced defendants. The band is arguing that the Wolfe trust waited too long to act on any claim.

The Merits

As for addressing the actual song, Led Zeppelin argues, "The similarity between Taurus and Stairway is limited to a descending chromatic scale of pitches resulting from 'broken' chords or arpeggios and which is so common in music it is called a minor line cliché."

It's not yet clear whether the judge will address Led Zeppelin's motion for summary dismissal on procedural grounds or based on the songs themselves. Either way, it seems that "Stairway to Heaven" will remain a generational favorite while "Taurus" languishes in obscurity.

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