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Stairway to the Eastern District Federal Court of Pennsylvania

Chad W. Lutz
Led Zeppelin has long been regarded as a seminal rock n' roll band. Building on the early rockabilly styling of the genre in the 1950s, the quartet of John Bonham, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Robert Plant pioneered a heavier sound that has thundered throughout the last four decades. Of their greatest hits, "Stairway to Heaven" serves an almost eponymous place in the band's discography. If you know Led Zeppelin, odds are you know "Stairway to Heaven".
The English rock band has enjoyed popularity from a multitude of other hits, including "Whole Lotta Love", "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You", "Lemon Song", and "Dazed and Confused". What these other popular tracks have in common with "Stairway to Heaven" is that all of the songs have, at one time or another, come under fire of being plagiarized from previous recordings.

An Eastern Pennsylvania District judge recently denied an appeal from lawyers hired by Led Zeppelin to dismiss an allegation of plagiarism submitted by a legal team representing 1960s prog band Spirit. The members of Spirit, on behalf of late front man Randy "California" Wolfe, claim "Stairway to Heaven" too closely resembles a song from Spirit's self-titled debut album released in 1968. The song "Taurus", which Spirit's legal team claims Led Zeppelin stole from, sits at the center of the controversy. The case also includes a call for payment of lost royalties, which estimates put in the upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Although one might suspect Spirit of trying to capitalize on the successes of a major international icon like Led Zeppelin, playbills show Zeppelin actually toured with Spirit in 1968 and 1969, nearly a year before the release of "Stairway to Heaven" and just before the song's official recording in late 1970 and early 1971 for the release of Led Zeppelin IV, which has gone on to receive 23-times platinum certification from the RIAA.

The initial appeal was in deference to whether or not the case should be heard in the Eastern Pennsylvania District Court. Judge Juan Sanchez, appointed in June 2004, felt the sales generated by Led Zeppelin involve "directly targeting" the district for commercial entertainment purposes and provide for legal precedence to proceed with the case.