Stairway to Heaven or Road to Nowhere?

Randy California (born Randall Wolfe) was a singer songwriter and original member of the 60s psychedelic rock band Spirit, best known for “I Got a Line on You,” from the band’s second album.

A portion of the intro to the song “Taurus,” an obscure track on Spirit’s eponymous 1968 recording, bears a resemblance to introduction of “Stairway to Heaven,” the 1971 release by Led Zeppelin that is counted among Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest songs of all time.

You can listen to “Taurus” and decide for yourself.

What is more interesting to me than whether Jimmy Page lifted the intro of one of the most famous songs in rock history from one of its most obscure is an argument in Led Zeppelin’s motion to dismiss, which alleges that Randy California isn’t the “author” of the song and, therefore, lacks standing to sue. The argument–which appears quite strong–is based on Randy’s first songwriting agreement, executed in 1968 when he was only 16. That agreement, which is provided below, defines the relationship between Hollenbeck Music (the publishing company affiliated with Ole Records, to which Spirit was signed for an exclusive recording contract) thusly: “Publisher … employs Writer to render his services as a songwriter and composer …” This language appears to be classic “work made for hire” under which the Copyright Act treats the employer as the author of the copyrighted work. (See Sec. 101, defining a “work made for hire” as “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.”). Said differently, in this context the “work made for hire” doctrine treats the copyright in the song “Taurus” as if Hollenbeck had actually written the notes in question. Under the Copyright Act’s Sec. 501(b), only the legal or beneficial owner of an exclusive right under copyright has standing to sue for its infringement. Importantly, however, “[a] creator of a work made for hire does not qualify as a beneficial owner even if he or she is entitled to royalties.” Ray Charles Found. v. Robinson, 795 F.3d 1109, 1116 n. 7 (9th Cir. 2015). This appears to be fatal to Randy’s heirs attempt to sue Led Zeppelin for infringement!

ASIDE: If Jimmy Page did copy the intro to Stairway to Heaven, then Hollenbeck may have a claim for infringement, so succeeding on this motion to dismiss is not necessarily a lasting victory for Led Zeppelin.

The exclusive songwriter agreement is here.

Stairway to Heaven (Songwriter Contract)

The motion to dismiss is here.

Stairway to Heaven MTD (2!25!16)