6 October 2020CopyrightSarah Morgan

SCOTUS denies ‘Stairway to Heaven’ appeal

Led Zeppelin has overcome the final hurdle in its “Stairway to Heaven” dispute with the estate of Randy Wolfe, the late singer of the band Spirit.

Yesterday, October 5, the  US Supreme Court declined to hear the case, handing victory to Led Zeppelin in the long-running battle.

The case began in 2014, when Michael Skidmore filed suit against the band, on behalf of the late Spirit member Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, who claimed that “Stairway to Heaven” infringed Spirit’s song “Taurus”.

Skidmore, who manages a trust set up in California’s name, sought more than $40 million in damages and requested that California be credited.

Led Zeppelin  won the case in 2016, but it was revived on appeal in 2018 by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which found that errors on the part of the trial judge required a re-trial.

Skidmore argued that the district court had erred in considering the infringement case on the basis of sheet music of "Taurus", rather than performances of the song but, earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit  upheld the earlier verdict in an en banc rehearing.

The US government also had its say in the dispute—in August 2019, just before the Ninth Circuit’s rehearing of the case, the government  weighed in, 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.

At the same time, a group of more than 100 songwriters, composers and musicians  filed an amicus brief in support of Led Zeppelin. According to the group, if the en banc Ninth Circuit adopted its 2018 ruling, “trivial and commonplace similarities between two songs could be considered to constitute the basis for a finding of infringement”.

In August this year, Skidmore  urged the Supreme Court to intervene in the long-running authorship dispute. But, two months later, the US’ highest court declined to review.

Yesterday’s decision provides some clarity to those alleging copyright infringement of their music.

Wesley Lewis, associate at Haynes & Boone, noted that the court’s denial of certiorari merely signifies that four justices did not find the case worthy of Supreme Court review.

“With that caveat, the denial of certiorari suggests that the Supreme Court was not convinced that the Ninth Circuit's holding was so erroneous as to require Supreme Court intervention at this juncture,” he added.

In his briefing, Skidmore claimed that the Ninth Circuit effectively rewrote copyright law by limiting the scope of protection to the sheet music deposited with the US Copyright Office.

“At least for now, the Ninth Circuit's holding will remain the law; accordingly, parties litigating copyright cases in the Ninth Circuit under the 1909 Act should be aware that the scope of an allegedly infringed copyright will be determined by what is on file with the Copyright Office,” concluded Lewis.

Francis Malofiy, whose firm represents the Wolfe estate, claimed that Led Zeppelin had won on a technicality.

“They prevented the jury from hearing and comparing the two songs at issue—Taurus vs Stairway to Heaven—because they knew they couldn’t win a fair fight,” he said.

Malofiy added: “This lawsuit was about giving credit where credit was due: We accomplished that goal. Today, the world knows that: Randy California wrote the introduction to ‘Stairway to Heaven’; Led Zeppelin are the greatest art thieves of all time; and courts are as imperfect as rock stars.”

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