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Jury badly advised says appeal in Stairway To Heaven song-theft case

By | Published on Tuesday 21 March 2017

Led Zeppelin

Lawyers for the estate of the late Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California, last week filed a 90 page brief as part of their appeal in the high profile ‘Stairway To Heaven’ plagiarism case.

As previously reported, the trust that benefits from Wolfe’s estate accused Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of plagiarising ‘Taurus’, a song Wolfe wrote for his band Spirit, when they wrote ‘Stairway To Heaven’. After a lively court hearing in which both Plant and Page gave testimony, a jury decided last June that the two songs were not sufficiently similar to constitute copyright infringement.

The main lawyer for Wolfe Trust rep Michael Skidmore – Francis Malofiy – almost immediately announced that his client would appeal. Last week’s lengthy submission to the Ninth Circuit appeals court outlined the Trust’s arguments, in particular arguing that a series of “erroneous” jury instructions resulting in Led Zepp winning the case.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Malofiy wrote in his submission: “The most important of these errors was that the trial court refused to let the jury hear the full and complete composition of ‘Taurus’ embodied in the sound recordings that Jimmy Page possessed, instead limiting the comparison to an outline of the ‘Taurus’ composition in the deposit copy lead sheet”.

That relates to an issue that was important in the ‘Blurred Lines’ song-theft case too, ie that in the era before the US Copyright Office started accepting sound recordings as submissions, technically only the core composition of a song as represented in the sheet music submitted as part of a work’s copyright registration is protected. This becomes an issue in plagiarism cases where one side is arguing that the other side copied elements of a song that appear in the most famous recording of it, but not the original sheet music.

In the ‘Blurred Lines’ case, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams argue that the judge didn’t do enough to enforce this limitation, hence the win for the Marvin Gaye estate. Meanwhile, in the ‘Stairway’ case, the plaintiffs are arguing that this limitation was enforced too heavily, resulting in a win for Page and Plant.