10 March 2020CopyrightEdward Pearcey

Led Zeppelin didn’t steal ‘Stairway To Heaven’ riff says appeals court

British rock legends Led Zeppelin did not steal the opening riff in "Stairway To Heaven", the band’s most famous song, following the rejection of a long-standing copyright lawsuit by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The court upheld a verdict passed four years ago, saving the song’s writers Jimmy Page and Robert Plant from paying potentially millions of dollars in damages.

Led Zeppelin originally faced court action in 2016, accused of copying parts of "Taurus", a song by US pop band Spirit, written and released in 1968, three years before "Stairway To Heaven".

An eight-member jury threw out the case, denying plaintiff Michael Skidmore who sought $40 million in damages. Skidmore is a trustee of the estate of Randy Wolfe, Spirit’s former guitarist and writer of "Taurus". Wolfe died in 1997.

In June 2019, it was announced that the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had decided to review the copyright infringement proceeding, after Skidmore argued that the previous district court erred in considering the infringement case on the basis of sheet music of "Taurus", rather than performances of the song.

Then, in August 2019, the US government sided with Led Zeppelin in the continuing copyright infringement case, with the federal government arguing that copyright protection for recorded songs should not extend to “performance elements” that were not included in the sheet music deposited with the US Copyright Office.

According to the appeal court ruling, handed down on Monday, March 9, Skidmore's claims were not based on the entire ‘Taurus’ composition, but rather the opening notes of "Stairway To Heaven", which “are substantially similar to the eight-measure passage at the beginning” of 'Taurus'".

“However, the composition of 'Stairway To Heaven' has a different ascending line that is played concurrently with the descending chromatic line, and a distinct sequence of pitches in the arpeggios, which are not present in 'Taurus’,” it added.

Adding that the "trial and appeal process has been a long climb up the 'Stairway To Heaven'", the court affirmed the 2016 ruling that the song did not infringe Spirit’s "Taurus".

‘Inverse ratio’ rule

“This [most recent] case is significant because it signals the Ninth Circuit’s departure from decades of muddled jurisprudence interpreting the so-called ‘inverse ratio’ rule in copyright infringement lawsuits. That rule states that a copyright infringement plaintiff must satisfy a lower standard of proof that two works are substantially similar when a high degree of access to an allegedly infringed work is demonstrated,” said Wesley Lewis, an associate at Haynes and Boone.

“Courts have struggled with this rule for decades, applying it inconsistently and, often, incorrectly. In recent years, several high-profile Ninth Circuit decisions have limited the applicability of the rule or questioned whether it should apply at all,” he added.

However, according to Catherine Miller, of counsel at Holland & Hart, the decision is “unlikely to have a long-lasting impact on the scope of rights in musical compositions or infringement litigation for modern works registered as published sound recordings under the 1976 Copyright Act”.

“While this case is interesting for copyright litigators for the remaining issues addressed by the court, the decision primarily hinged on the control of the 1909 Copyright Act, which does not protect sound recordings, and the fact that the musical composition ‘Taurus’ was registered as an unpublished work defined by one page of sheet music, not by Spirit’s sound recording,” she added.

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