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Jury sides with Led Zeppelin in ‘Stairway To Heaven’ song-theft case

By | Published on Friday 24 June 2016

Led Zeppelin

Seemingly using up the world’s supply of common sense just before we could get our hands on some, a jury yesterday ruled that Led Zeppelin did not rip off the Spirit song ‘Taurus’ when they wrote their hit ‘Stairway To Heaven’.

As much previously reported, the Zeppelin were accused of ripping off ‘Taurus’ – four decades after they wrote their song – by the trust that benefits from the estate of the man who wrote the Spirit track, the late Randy California, aka Randy Craig Wolfe.

The Californian court case to consider the song-theft claim focused on two key questions, whether or not Led Zep’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were exposed to the Spirit song back in the day, and whether or not ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway’ were similar enough to constitute copyright infringement.

Plant and Page denied ever hearing ‘Taurus’ before writing ‘Stairway’, despite the former being at venue where Spirit played in 1969, and the latter admitting he owned a copy of the album on which the song appears.

Meanwhile the two men also presented a musicologist who disagreed with the expert witness presented by the plaintiffs, who had said there was “substantial similarity” between the two songs. But Led Zep’s expert disagreed, arguing that ‘Taurus’ and ‘Stairway’ simply used the same “musical building blocks”.

On that latter point the jury agreed with the rockers. Although they felt Page and Plant likely had heard the Spirit song before they wrote their own hit, jurors decided the two works were not sufficiently similar to constitute copyright infringement, thus finding in Led Zeppelin’s favour.

Welcoming the ruling in a joint statement, Plant and Page told reporters yesterday: “We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favour, putting to rest questions about the origins of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and confirming what we have known for 45 years. We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us”.

Meanwhile a spokesman for Warner Music, also targeted in the lawsuit, added that: “At Warner Music Group, supporting our artists and protecting their creative freedom is paramount. We are pleased that the jury found in favour of Led Zeppelin, re-affirming the true origins of ‘Stairway To Heaven’. Led Zeppelin are one of the greatest bands in history, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are peerless songwriters who created many of rock’s most influential and enduring songs”.

Following last year’s ‘Blurred Lines’ case – another high profile song-theft lawsuit, but where the party claiming infringement prevailed – lawyers will now be considering what this new ruling tells us about what American copyright law says about songs that sound rather similar.

On that point, J Michael Keyes, from the Californian office of law firm Dorsey & Whitney, told reporters: “The jury’s verdict may have several noteworthy implications for current music copyright cases – such as those pending against Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran – and future ones, too. Although teasing out exactly what swayed the jury is a bit like reading tea leaves, here are some observations”.

“A music copyright plaintiff should think carefully about whether the ‘amount’ of alleged infringement is significant enough to pursue”, the legal man observes. “Especially through a full-blown jury trial. The amount of alleged similarity in this case was essentially a five-note ‘baseline’ and the jury found that the two works were not substantially similar”.

“A music copyright plaintiff should also consider whether the alleged ‘similarity’ is due to copying or, rather, whether the similarity may be due to common elements that exist in the world of music”, he continued. “Just as an author cannot claim copyright protection in ‘stock’ plot elements – ie ‘it was a cold, dark stormy night’ – a musician cannot protect ‘stock’ music elements either – ie a ‘baseline’ that has been used in scores of musical compositions”.

Keyes also noted that in this case, jurors had to specifically compare the core compositions of the two songs, rather than the classic recordings, where the similarities are arguably stronger.

This is because, says Keyes, “the sheet music version of ‘Taurus’ is what was registered with the US Copyright Office. It may have been too much of a stretch for the jury to appreciate any similarities between a rather sedate piano composition [of ‘Taurus] and the soaring, electric sound recording of one of the rock genre’s greatest hits of all time”.

Though, of course, the same limitation was applied to the ‘Blurred Lines’ case, and that time the song-theft allegations still stood.

One last issue in this case, Keyes reckons, is the time it took to sue. “The multiple decades delay in pursuing this case – especially given that the plaintiff who wrote the song has already ascended his own stairway – may have been too much for the plaintiff to overcome. The jury may have seen the plaintiff’s estate as trying to cash in on ‘all that glitters is gold'”.

So, all in all, not a good day for the trustees of the Wolfe Estate. But hey, you can appeal your bad news. You lucky, lucky bastards.