Led Zeppelin’s years-long copyright battle over “Stairway to Heaven” has finally reached its conclusion. Today, the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case, upholding a March 2020 appellate court decision that said the band’s classic hit did not infringe on Spirit’s song “Taurus”.
Spirit’s Randy Wolf wrote and recorded “Taurus” in 1967. In the time between then and the recording of “Stairway to Heaven” in 1971, Zeppelin played a number of shows with Spirit. Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page later acknowledged that Spirit may have influenced his writing of the song, but called accusations of plagiarism “ridiculous.”
Nevertheless, Michael Skidmore, the trustee for Wolfe’s estate, filed suit against Led Zeppelin in 2014. Following testimonies from Page, his Zeppelin bandmate Robert Plant, Spirit band members, and other expert witnesses, a trial jury sided with Led Zeppelin in 2016. But in a dramatic turn of events, the ruling was later overturned after a panel of appellate justices found that the jury hadn’t been given sufficient instruction on what constitutes musical originality. The appeals court also agreed with Skidmore’s argument that the jury should have been able to hear “Taurus” during the actual trial.
This past March, the Ninth Circuit Court heard the case and upheld the jury’s initial ruling, again granting Led Zeppelin a legal victory. In their opinion, the Ninth Circuit dismissed the so-called “inverse ratio rule,” which states that the bar for proving substantial similarity in copyright cases is lower for works with higher degrees of access. “As a practical matter, the concept of ‘access’ is increasingly diluted in our digitally interconnected world,” the court wrote.
The saga should’ve ended there, but the Wolfe estate once more filed a petition to reverse the ruling, this time with the Supreme Court.
According to Bloomberg Law, the Supreme Court’s decision to pass on the case means that this lengthy legal ordeal is finally over and done with, and puts to bed a controversy that’s been a part of the classic rock discourse for decades. More importantly, it means that the iconic “Stairway to Heaven” is now legally Led Zeppelin’s intellectual property.
Compare “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” for yourself below.