Copyright suit claims Led Zeppelin stole opening riff of 'Stairway to Heaven'

By Jim Boyle | Jun 4, 2014

One of the most iconic songs of the past 50 years features a stolen opening melody,

according to a lawsuit filed at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The estate of deceased guitarist Randy Craig Wolfe (aka Randy California) alleges that Led Zeppelin guitarist and producer Jimmy Page lifted the slow, ethereal beginning of 'Stairway to Heaven' from 'Taurus', a song Wolfe wrote and released in 1967 with his own band, Spirit.

The suit claims that the band members Led Zeppelin knew about 'Taurus' because they were Spirit's opening act in the late 1960s, well-before the 1971 release of their fourth album, which features 'Stairway to Heaven.' The suit seeks statutory damages of $150,000 for each copyright infringement, a share of profits the band made from the song, injunction against the future sale of 'Stairway to Heaven' and punitive damages.

According to the suit, Wolfe was an accomplished guitarist at a young age, earning the nickname Randy California from Jimi Hendrix when he met the legendary musician in New York in 1966. A 16-year-old Wolfe formed his own band, Spirit, in 1967, and experimented with more psychedelic styles of music, the complaint says.

In 1968, a new band from the United Kingdom traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to tour the U.S. in support of their debut album. The claim says, "Not yet immortal rock legends, Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit on Dec. 26, 1968. Spirit played 'Taurus' at this show, as it did in most of its concerts that year."

Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit several more times in 1969, at shows where Wolfe played 'Taurus.' The claim says that Wolfe's music made a lasting impression on the band, Page in particular. Excerpts from old interviews are included in the suit, including quotes from a 1972 issue of Zig Zag magazine where Page says Spirit's performance struck him at an emotional level. The band also used covered another Spirit song, "Fresh Garbage," during live performances.

The plaintiffs claim that Wolfe's music had a huge influence on Led Zeppelin, citing more psychedelic tones in the band's future catalog.

"Parts of 'Stairway to Heaven,' instantly recognizable to the music fans
across the world, sound almost identical to significant portions of 'Taurus,'" the suit says. "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 suit also says that this is not the first time that charges of plagiarism have been leveled at Led Zeppelin. A chart shows 17 instances with various outcomes, such as the 1969 song "How Many More Times," which the band gave credit in 1993 to Howlin' Wolf's 1959 song with the same title.

The Wolfe estate is represented by Media, Pa., attorney Francis Alexander Malofiy. Malofiy was recently reprimanded by a federal judge during litigation of another copyright suit, this time against pop music superstar Usher.

U.S. District Judge Paul Diamond granted a motion to the 17 of 20 defendants, ruling that Malofiy had behaved in a "flagrantly unprofessional and offensive manner" during discovery and depositions.

Malofiy's client, Daniel Marino, claims he wrote and produced a song, "Club Girl" with two partners that was recorded and released by Usher in 2004. However, Marino did not receive songwriting credit and did not receive song royalties. During discovery, Malofiy tricked one of the writing partners to sign an inculpatory affidavit by telling him that Marino would not include him in the lawsuit.

The writing partner, William Guice, was in fact included, but failed to respond to the complaint based on Malofiy's reassurances. Malofiy then turned around and filed for a summary judgement against Guice.

The court also agreed that Malofiy acted in an outrageous and abusive manner during depositions. He would not agree to schedule meeting times, and when a deposition finally took place, Malofiy would repeatedly disrupt the proceedings with numerous objections, even after the judge explicitly told him to refrain.

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