Naperville Business Attorney Discusses Copyrights, Licensing Rights, and “Stairway to Heaven”

copyright, Naperville business law attorneyMost people of a certain age are at least familiar with the iconic opening guitar riff to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” The 1971 song has been popular with rock fans, as well as aspiring guitar players looking to impress their friends as they learn to play. The song, however, has been the subject of controversy in recent years, as Led Zeppelin is, even today, in the midst of defending against claims of copyright infringement.

As a business law attorney, I understand the importance of copyright laws and protections. I also realize that the application of such laws can be rather difficult when it comes to subjective works like books, stories, songs, and musical compositions. Those who create original works, however, must be able to protect their property from being appropriated by someone else without proper permission.

Flipping a 25-Year-Old Joke

In 1992, the irreverent Saturday Night Live spin-off comedy Wayne’s World included a moment where Mike Meyers’ title character Wayne walks into a music store, picks up a high-end guitar, and begins to play a short riff. About three notes in, the store clerk stops Wayne and points to a sign on the wall that reads “No Stairway to Heaven.” Wayne breaks the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera and exclaiming “No ‘Stairway!’ Denied!”—a line that is still repeated by fans a quarter century later.

The joke originally began as a rib on the ubiquitous nature of the song among guitar players, but it soon took on a double meaning. Representatives for Warner Music Group and Led Zeppelin refused to allow the song’s famous riff to appear in the movie after its theatrical release unless the film’s producers paid substantially more in royalties. As a result, VHS, DVD, and cable TV versions of Wayne’s World kept the gag but replaced the riff Wayne plays with a string of notes that sound nothing like ”Stairway.” Denied, indeed.

Copyright Infringement Lawsuit

In 2014, however, representatives from the estate of a musician known as Randy California filed a copyright infringement suit against Led Zeppelin regarding “Stairway to Heaven.” The lawsuit alleged that the world-famous rock band plagiarized an instrumental composition entitled “Taurus” that California wrote for his band Spirit in 1968. While members of Led Zeppelin have openly admitted to being influenced by Spirit’s ethereal and psychedelic elements, the suit maintained that the opening bars of “Stairway” sound almost exactly the same as a classical guitar piece in “Taurus.”

Last summer, a federal jury in Los Angeles deliberated for about 15 minutes before returning with a verdict in favor of Led Zeppelin. The jury determined that the band “did have access to ‘Taurus’ before writing ‘Stairway’ [but] the songs are not substantially similar.

Attorneys for Randy California’s estate have filed an appeal claiming that the jury was not given access to a particular recording of “Taurus” that makes the similarities clearer. Representatives for Led Zeppelin have filed a cross-appeal seeking legal fees, claiming that the continued litigation is frivolous and without merit. The appeal is currently in process.

Protecting Your Intellectual Property

If you produce original works of art, literature, or music, it is important to protect your intellectual property. Failure to do so could allow others to use your works for profit without your consent. To learn more about copyright protection or licensing rights, contact an experienced Naperville business law attorney. Call 630-756-1160 for a confidential consultation at The Gierach Law Firm today.



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