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US Supreme Court declines to hear Stairway To Heaven case, meaning Led Zeppelin win

By | Published on Tuesday 6 October 2020

Led Zeppelin

The US Supreme Court has declined to hear the big ‘Stairway To Heaven’ copyright case, meaning that the most recent ruling in the Ninth Circuit appeals court – in Led Zeppelin’s favour – stands.

It was the estate of the late Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California, who sued Led Zeppelin in 2014 claiming that the band’s 1971 track ‘Stairway To Heaven’ ripped off an earlier song called ‘Taurus’, which Wolfe had written for his band Spirit.

The case went before a jury in 2016 who ruled that, while it may be true that Led Zep members had heard ‘Taurus’ before writing ‘Stairway’, the two songs were not – in fact – similar enough to constitute copyright infringement.

The Wolfe estate then took the matter to the Ninth Circuit appeals court criticising various decisions made by the judge in the original jury trial. The appeals court initially concurred with the estate and ordered a retrial. But then it reconsidered the matter en banc – with more judges involved – and that time decided that the original ruling in Led Zep’s favour should stand.

It’s for that reason that the Wolfe estate wanted the Supreme Court to intervene. In a filing with the top court last month, the estate argued that the Ninth Circuit made two mistakes in its second ruling, the first relating to what elements of a song enjoy copyright protection, the second regarding what constitutes originality under copyright law.

The first of those bugbears relates to the idea that, in the US, a song is only protected by copyright in the form that it was filed with the US Copyright Office. That’s an issue for older songs, because it used to be that only sheet music could be filed when a song was registered, not a recording of said song. And sheet music doesn’t always represent all the elements of a song as it appears in its original recording.

In this case – and others – some or all of the elements that one song is accused of ripping off from another are contained in the original recording but not the original sheet music. Therefore, the Wolfe estate argued, this idea that only the song as contained in the sheet music should be protected is a bad idea that should be rejected.

On the originality point, the big issue related to when you have common musical elements not protected by copyright that have then been employed and arranged in a specific way. While the common elements themselves are not protected, could the arrangement have protection? The Wolfe estate argued that precedent prior to the Ninth Circuit ruling in this case had said yes, a specific arrangement of common elements could be protected by copyright.

While trying to persuade the Supreme Court to accept the case, the Wolfe Estate insisted that it was campaigning for the rights of artists and songwriters, and that the Ninth Circuit ruling “is a disaster for the creatives whose talent is often preyed upon”.

That said, plenty of artists and songwriters in the creative community felt the Ninth Circuit ruling was the right decision, with many arguing that it was the ruling in the ‘Blurred Lines’ case – which went the other way – that potentially damaged the creative process, by suggesting that common musical elements, techniques and vibes can be protected by copyright.

But disaster or not, the Ninth Circuit decision now stands. The Supreme Court did not explain why it had declined to hear the copyright case, although that’s not unusual, and the top court knocks back many more cases than it accepts.

Many reckon that the precedent set by the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in the ‘Stairway’ litigation could result in fewer song-theft cases of this kind being pursued, the earlier ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling having arguably had the opposite effect.

It will also be interesting to see what impact it has on other ongoing song-theft legal battles. In particular, that being pursued by the Ed Townsend estate against Ed Sheeran.

The Townsend side recently tried to reposition that case as being a battle against the music industry’s long history of exploiting black musicians. But it’s really a copyright case and the ‘Stairway’ ruling mainly helps the Sheeran side.

Meanwhile, the lawyer who led the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ case for the Wolfe Estate, Francis Malofiy, yesterday said that while his side had lost in court, they had nevertheless achieved a core objective of the legal action.

Insisting that Led Zeppelin “won on a technicality”, he said in a statement that he was still pleased that “the world knows that: 1) Randy California wrote the introduction to ‘Stairway To Heaven’; 2) Led Zeppelin are the greatest art thieves of all time; and 3) Courts are as imperfect as rock stars”.