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123 artists speak out in support of Led Zeppelin in ‘Stairway To Heaven’ song-theft case

By | Published on Friday 2 August 2019

Led Zeppelin

A plethora of artists – including Korn, Tool, Linkin Park, Jason Mraz and Sean Lennon – have put their name to a so called amicus brief submitted in the ongoing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ case, also in the US. The music stars want judges in the Ninth Circuit appeals court to uphold an earlier ruling that said Led Zeppelin did not rip off a song called ‘Taurus’ when they wrote their 1971 classic.

The band, as you may remember, were sued by the estate of songwriter Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California. Its lawsuit alleged that ‘Stairway’ ripped off Wolfe’s earlier song ‘Taurus’. However, the band ultimately defeated the litigation in June 2016 with a jury concluding that the two songs were not sufficiently similar to constitute copyright infringement.

The Wolfe estate then appealed that ruling in March 2017, arguing that the jury had been badly briefed by the judge, in particular regarding some of the complexities of American copyright law that were relevant to the case. Last year the Ninth Circuit concurred with the estate, overturning the original judgement and ordering a retrial.

However, before that new trial could begin, in June the Ninth Circuit announced it would reconsider the case again, this time en banc, meaning more judges will take part. En banc hearings only usually occur in cases where important matters of law are involved.

There have been a number of high profile song-theft lawsuits in recent years, of course, including the ‘Blurred Lines’ litigation and this week’s judgements against Katy Perry in relation to her hit ‘Dark Horse’.

Many in the music community reckon that courts have become too willing to conclude that short common musical phrases are protected by copyright, so that when they are used in two songs, the writers of the earlier work can sue for infringement. The ‘Stairway’ judgement bucked that trend, hence why artists are keen for it to be upheld.

The amicus brief, backed by 123 artists, cautions the Ninth Circuit, saying that if the original ruling in the ‘Stairway’ case is overturned it potentially sets a dangerous precedent that could impact on the songwriting process. It states that the outcome of the proceedings might be an assumption that “trivial and commonplace similarities between two songs could be considered to constitute the basis for a finding of infringement”.

That, they say, would confuse artists, stifle creativity, and result in “excessive and unwarranted” litigation by artists and lawyers seeking to profit from ambiguities in the law.

A legal rep for the Wolfe estate was dismissive of the amicus brief, telling Law 360 that it was “unimpressive and dull” and hardly representative of the wider artist community. “It’s really nothing more than a blast piece for the industry”, he concluded.