No Quarter: Judge Sends Zeppelin Copyright Infringement Suit to Trial

Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and Robert Plant, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin, lost the main arguments of their summary judgment motion in the latest saga of the copyright infringement suit over “Stairway to Heaven. They are fighting to defend against claims they stole the intro of the famed song from the group Spirit’s instrumental “Taurus.”

The plaintiff, who is the trustee for the estate of Spirit’s deceased guitarist, filed suit in 2014 after Zeppelin remastered and re-released “Stairway” the same year. “Taurus” was released in 1967, four years before the original release of “Stairway.” The two bands played at least three major festivals together between 1968 and 1970, with Zeppelin (believe it or not) opening for Spirit. Despite these facts, Page, Jones, and Plant all testified in depositions that they never toured with, shared a stage with, or listened to any of Spirit’s music.

Zeppelin raised the defense of abandonment, arguing that Wolfe verbally abandoned his copyright to “Taurus” during a 1991 interview when he acknowledged the similarities between the two songs and lamented “I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit.” The court ruled against Zeppelin and sent this issue to trial because the plaintiffs offered several pieces of evidence raising the possibility Wolfe did not intend to abandon his rights, including multiple occasions where Wolfe actively contemplated filing suit against Zeppelin.

Regarding the infringement claims, although the Court rejected many of the plaintiff’s arguments that Zeppelin had access to “Taurus,” it did find a triable issue of fact to thwart Zeppelin’s motion based on the groups’ festival appearances together. Also, the plaintiff impeached Page’s testimony that he never saw Spirit live by presenting evidence of interviews in which Page admitted that he was a fan of Spirit and had attended several shows.

The Court rejected expert opinion of similarities between the songs based on elements of the “Taurus” sound recording because in 1967, there was no federal copyright protection for sound recordings. Instead, the Court identified the only copyright claim as being in the "musical composition of Taurus, not the sound recording"; after stripping consideration of the sound recording away, "the only remaining similarity is the core, repeated A-minor descending chromatic bass line structure that marks the first two minutes of each song."

In considering whether "Taurus" and "Stairway" are substantially similar, the Court, while agreeing with Zeppelin that the chord progression at the heart of both songs is commonplace in the music industry, found "the similarities...transcend this core structure." The Court identified similarities in not only the chord progression, but in the arrangement of the parts of the songs in which the progression takes place, and that fact that the similar parts both appear in the beginnings of the songs.

The Court ruled that the plaintiff demonstrated “enough similar protectable expression," and determined while concluding its similarity analysis that a jury would be better at rendering "...a subjective assessment of the ‘concept and feel’" of the two works to ultimately decide if "Stairway" infringes "Taurus."

Photo by p_a_h from United Kingdom (flickr.com) [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons].

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