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Appeals court overturns ruling in Stairway To Heaven song-theft case

By | Published on Monday 1 October 2018

Led Zeppelin

Anyone with fond memories for what was probably the second biggest song theft lawsuit of recent times – the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ case – is in for a treat. An American appeals court has overturned Led Zeppelin’s win, kickstarting a whole new trial.

As those with weirdly good memories for famous copyright lawsuits will recall, Led Zep were sued by the estate of songwriter Randy Wolfe – aka Randy California – which alleged that ‘Stairway To Heaven’ ripped off a song written by Wolfe.

The band ultimately defeated the litigation in June 2016. Although the jury reckoned Led Zep’s Jimmy Page may have been exposed to Wolfe’s song ‘Taurus’ before writing ‘Stairway’, it was decided the two songs weren’t sufficiently similar to constitute copyright infringement.

The Wolfe estate appealed that ruling in March last year, arguing that the jury had been badly briefed by the judge. They also had a good moan about the principle in American copyright law that says that only the elements of a song filed with the US Copyright Office are actually protected by copyright. Which for older works like ‘Taurus’ means only what was contained in the sheet music, not any subsequent recording.

That was also an issue in what was the biggest song theft lawsuit of recent times, that being the ‘Blurred Lines’ case. In that legal battle, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams argued that the judge didn’t enforce that principle enough, which is why they lost. But in the ‘Stairway’ case, the Wolfe estate claimed that their judge put far too much emphasis on the same principle, which is why Led Zeppelin won.

The Ninth Circuit appeal court last week concurred with the Wolfe estate, ruling that the judge in the original trial had indeed made errors when advising the jury, especially over some copyright technicalities that were relevant to the dispute. To that end the judgment in favour of Led Zep has been overturned and the whole matter will return to court.

The Wolfe estate’s legal rep told reporters: “Today, we are proud that three esteemed jurists from the Ninth Circuit recognised the battle that we fought and the injustice that we faced. Our belief in our justice system never wavered, even under tremendous odds, and we look forward to the challenge of a fair fight”.