17 August 2020Copyright

SCOTUS urged to review ‘disastrous’ Led Zeppelin opinion

The US Supreme Court has been asked to intervene in the long-running copyright dispute over authorship of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven”.

In a  petition filed this month, a trustee for the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe said a court decision in favour of Led Zeppelin threatened to undermine all music copyright.

The  US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in March that Led Zeppelin was not liable for copying the opening riff of “Stairway To Heaven” from Spirit’s 1967 song “Taurus”.

Michael Skidmore, representing Wolfe’s estate, says the Ninth Circuit effectively rewrote copyright law by limiting the scope of protection to the sheet music deposited with the US Copyright Office.

“The Ninth Circuit’s en banc opinion erodes the foundations of copyright law to the point of being unrecognisable,” said the petition to the Supreme Court.

This decision, if upheld, will “likely divest hundreds of thousands of songs of copyright protection,” Skidmore claimed.

According to Skidmore, a jury in the  original district court trial was not allowed to properly compare the songs, because it wasn’t able to listen to them.

Lawyers for Led Zeppelin argued that the scope of the “Taurus” copyright should be limited to the sheet music deposited with the US Copyright Office.

Under that rule, the district court and, subsequently, the Ninth Circuit, held that Led Zeppelin had not infringed the copyright for the Spirit song.

In Skidmore’s view, the Ninth Circuit opinion was a “gift to the music industry” and a “disaster for independent artists”.

Also at issue in the suit was whether a combination of otherwise unprotectable elements can be afforded copyright protection, if it is original.

Skidmore claims that this “selection and arrangement” of such elements is fundamental to US copyright law.

But according to the Ninth Circuit’s March opinion, “a selection and arrangement instruction would not have convinced the jury that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was substantially similar to the deposit copy of ‘Taurus’.”

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More on this story

10 March 2020   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.
24 June 2016   Led Zeppelin won a copyright trial over “Stairway to Heaven” yesterday after the British rock group had been accused of copying a song from a less well-known US band, Spirit.
6 October 2020   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.