Copyright Coda: Zeppelin Beats Infringement Suit

A California jury decided quickly and unanimously that Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" was not substantially similar to Spirit's "Taurus" as the estate of the band's guitarist claimed in its copyright infringement suit.

The case was reported on here when it was at the summary judgment phase, and climaxed with a decision reached after less than a day of deliberation by the jury. While the Zeps were found to have had access to the plaintiff's work (one of the essential elements of copyright infringement), the jury found that the similarities with "Stairway" did not rise to the level of infringement. In fact, a significant portion of the evidence presented demonstrated that the signature bass line in both compositions has appeared in many songs, some going all the way back to the 1930's (ala “My Funny Valentine”).

The ease with which the jury made its decision could also have been attributable to the fact that it took nearly half a century for the plaintiff to get around to filing for copyright infringement. Although the statute of limitations for infringement is three years and long passed for the original, a remastered version of "Stairway" provided new life to the viability of such a suit. Spirit's guitarist Randy Craig Wolfe flirted with the idea of suing Zeppelin while he alive, but never followed through.

Another crucial factor could have been that the subject of the alleged infringement was the musical composition, not the sound recording of "Taurus." The practical effect of this was that the jury had to compare a piano rendition of the plaintiff's song to "Stairway" rather than the pre-1972 sound recording, which is due to the fact that there was no federal copyright for sound recordings when "Taurus" was recorded in 1968.

It remains to be seen if the plaintiffs will ramble on to the 9th Circuit and file an appeal, so this may not be the coda for this case.

Photo by Dina Regine [CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

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