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Using the Led Zeppelin IV typeface, and including a claim for the “Falsification of Rock N’ Roll History,” the heirs of songwriter Randy Craig Wolfe have finally lodged a copyright infringement lawsuit against Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and other Led Zeppelin parties over the 1971 song “Stairway to Heaven.”
The complaint — 43 years in the making — was filed in Pennsylvania federal court Friday, and it’s indeed a colorful one.
It tells the story of Wolfe (aka Randy California), a guitar virtuoso who was discovered by Jimi Hendrix at the age of 15 and later became the founding member of the band Spirit, which in 1968 released a self-titled album that made Billboard’s Top 40 charts. Most notably on that album was a 2-minute, 37-second instrumental titled “Taurus” with a distinctive guitar line. According to the complaint, “Little did anyone know at the time, 17-year old Randy had created what would become some of the most famous guitar work in the history of music.”
That same year, Spirit was touring. The opening band? Led Zeppelin, of course. “Jimmy Page’s use of the Etherwave-Theremin and other psychedelic-type audio effects which helped give Led Zeppelin its distinctive sound — especially prominent in ‘Whole Lotta Love’ — was inspired by seeing California effectively use these types of audio-enhancing effects on tour,” states the complaint.
In 1970, the official story of Rock N’ Roll History goes, Page holed himself up in a remote cottage in Wales called Bron-Yr-Aur, and by fireside, wrote “Stairway to Heaven.”
“I had these pieces, these guitar pieces, that I wanted to put together,” Page would later explain in describing the writing of the song. “I had a whole idea of a piece of music that I really wanted to try and present to everybody and try and come to terms with. Bit difficult really….”
The song was recorded in London in 1970-71. It was released on an untitled album now known as Led Zeppelin IV. Its introductory passage is quite iconic — arguably the one song that every aspiring guitar player tries to learn. See Wayne’s World.
But the trustee now managing the Wolfe estate is taking legal action. See better-late-than-never.
“Any reasonable observer, when comparing ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ must conclude that — at the very least — significant portions of the songs are nearly identical,” the lawsuit argues.
Although the complaint admits that “Led Zeppelin is undeniably one of the greatest bands in history, and their musical talent is boundless,” it also notes that “this is hardly the first time Zeppelin has been accused of lifting their most famous songs.”
A chart of 17 allegedly stolen songs is provided. Titles like “Dazed and Confused,” “Whole Lotta Love” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You” are sourced to others. Among the allegedly ripped-off are Howlin’ Wolf, Eddie Cochran, Willie Dixon and Ritchie Valens. Led Zeppelin is said to have made six settlements (evidenced seemingly by song credits). Other supposed “infringements” prompted no legal actions.
The plaintiff is demanding statutory damages, defendants’ profits, punitive damages plus equitable relief in the form of an order that Wolfe is credited as a writer of “Stairway to Heaven.” A footnote in the lawsuit indicates that funds obtained from the lawsuit will go into a trust whose proceeds go to buying needy children musical instruments.
Below is the full complaint, notably from the same lawyer who just two weeks ago, was sanctioned in a songwriting dispute involving Usher. That lawyer is apparently unaware of the rash of copyright cases targeting font infringement.
As for Page, the legendary guitarist recently told a French newspaper that the claims of plagiarizing “Stairway to Heaven” were “ridiculous.”
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