19 August 2019CopyrightRory O'Neill

US government backs Led Zeppelin in copyright suit

The US government has sided with Led Zeppelin in a continuing copyright infringement case over the band’s 1971 song “Stairway to Heaven”.

According to the federal government, 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.

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is set to re-hear the case next month, in an appeal stemming from a 2015 lawsuit by the estate of Randy Wolfe, the late singer of the band Spirit.

Wolfe’s estate claims that “Stairway to Heaven” stole elements from Spirit’s 1967 song “Taurus”.

A California district court sided with Led Zeppelin, ruling that copyright protection for “Taurus” extended only to elements included in the deposited sheet music.

Wolfe’s estate appealed the case to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, arguing that the district court erred in adjudicating the case solely on the basis of the sheet music.

In June, the Ninth Circuit agreed to an en banc rehearing of the case, which is set to begin in the week of September 23.

Since the appeals court agreed to cake the case, multiple parties have weighed in with amicus briefs.

Earlier this month, WIPR reported that a group of more than 100 composers and musicians had filed a court submission backing Led Zeppelin.

The US federal government has now done the same, arguing that performance elements, “which might have been present when the song was performed or recorded but were not reflected in the deposited sheet music,” are not covered by the song’s copyright registration.

According to the government, once the performance elements are removed, the only musical similarities between “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” are an A-minor chord and a descending chromatic scale.

As the government explained, under the law at the time, “public distribution of sound recordings before 1978 did not constitute publication of any musical work embodied in them”.

Consequently, parties had to submit sheet music to the Copyright Office to obtain copyright protection for an unpublished work.

The government stressed that although Wolfe may have “composed, performed, and recorded a more extensive version of ‘Taurus’ than is reflected in the deposit copy”, that version of the song was not protected by the cited copyright registration.

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More on this story

7 August 2019   A group of more than 100 songwriters, composers and musicians have filed an amicus brief in support of Led Zeppelin in a copyright infringement case involving the 1971 hit “Stairway to Heaven”.
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.