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Led Zeppelin Faces 'Stairway to Heaven' Lawsuit Thanks to 'Raging Bull'

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By William Peacock, Esq. on October 31, 2014 5:00 PM

One of the most legendary rock songs of all time, "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin, might just be a copy-and-paste job. That's the claim of the heirs of Randy Craig Wolfe (aka Randy California), a legendary guitarist in his own right, a protege of Jimi Hendrix who formed the band Spirit when he was still a teenager and was a pioneer in the psychedelic rock category.

Spirit released the instrumental interlude "Taurus" two years before "Stairway to Heaven." Zeppelin toured with Spirit and often covered the latter band's songs when they opened for them.

Now Wolfe's estate, decades after the songs were released, is raising a copyright infringement claim over the issue.

Wait, Plagiarism?

NPR says the issue is plagiarism; the complaint says copyright. Others might say they jacked the riff. Zeppelin apparently said that their tune was completely original and written in a cabin in England.

NPR has audio of the two riffs posted on its site, and yeah, they sound painfully similar. You can judge for yourself.

But it wouldn't be a shocker if the Wolfe estate's claim succeeds -- Zeppelin has a long history of allegedly borrowing from other artists and being sued for it. From the complaint:

'Raging Bull' Resurrection

What was your first thought when you read the headline? Probably something like, "why now?" After all, we're talking about songs released in the 1970s.

David Post, over at The Volokh Conspiracy, points to this year's "Raging Bull" Supreme Court case (Petrella v. MGM) as the culprit. In that case, the Court held that ongoing infringement was actionable from three years (the statute of limitations) after each instance of exploitation under the "separate accrual theory:"

"... when a defendant commits successive violations, the statute of limitations runs separately from each violation. Each time an infringing work is reproduced or distributed,the infringer commits a new wrong. Each wrong gives rise to a discrete 'claim' that 'accrue[s]' at the time the wrong occurs."

In practical terms, that means all that 1970s revenue is hands-off for Wolfe's heirs, but anything from three years ago through the end of the copyright is fair game -- MP3 sales, online streaming services, television usage royalties, whatever.

The Complaint Itself Is a Work of Art

We're going to have more on this on FindLaw's Strategist blog next week -- because this thing deserves a whole post -- but if you want a preview, take a look at the complaint on Scribd.

It's stunning. It's over-the-top. It uses Led Zeppelin's special font in a complaint against Led Zeppelin. It's just awesome.

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