Artist News Legal

Led Zep ask appeals court to reconsider its Stairway song-theft judgement

By | Published on Wednesday 31 October 2018

Led Zeppelin

Legal reps for Led Zeppelin have requested that the Ninth Circuit appeals court in the US reconsider its recent decision to overturn the original ruling in the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ song-theft case.

The band argue that by overturning the original judgement, the appeals court could upset the “delicate balance” between copyright protection and the freedom on music creators to employ common techniques and musical elements when songwriting.

Led Zep, as you may remember, 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. However, they ultimately defeated the litigation in June 2016 with the jury concluding that ‘Stairway’ wasn’t sufficiently similar to Wolfe’s song ‘Taurus’.

The Wolfe estate then appealed that ruling in March last year, 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 month the Ninth Circuit concurred with the estate, overturning the original judgement and forcing a retrial.

One of the complexities relates to what copyright law should do when two songs share certain elements, but those elements are arguably common features of certain genres of music and therefore probably not in themselves protected by copyright.

Do you therefore say that the fact the two songs share those elements cannot constitute copyright infringement? Or do you consider the way in which those elements have been employed in the first song, and whether that employment is copied in the second? If it is, could copyright protect the way in which those common elements have been employed?

Tricky stuff. The Wolfe estate argued that in the original court hearing the judge incorrectly advised the jury on that specific complexity. The Ninth Circuit agreed. However, in a new legal filing made last week Led Zep argue that the judge first time round actually gave the correct advice to the jury. Moreover, they say, suggesting otherwise sets a dangerous precedent.

The band’s legal filing states that “if uncorrected”, the Ninth Circuit’s recent conclusion will “allow a jury to find infringement based on very different uses of public domain material” which, it then argues, “will cause widespread confusion in copyright cases in this circuit”.

Led Zep’s lawyers want the Ninth Circuit to reconsider last month’s ruling ‘en banc’, which means all the judges of the court would take part rather than just a panel of three. That only usually happens for very important cases. But the band’s legal team argue that this dispute has “exceptional importance not only to music, but all creative endeavours, and en banc review is necessary to avoid the widespread confusion the panel decision will create”.

We await the Ninth Circuit’s response.