How Led Zeppelin ‘Stairway’ Win Could Affect Music Copyright Liability

By | June 27, 2016

Led Zeppelin’s victory over allegations the band stole the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” may reverse the swell in copyright infringement lawsuits over pop songs that followed last year’s “Blurred Lines” verdict.

“‘Blurred Lines’ left everything wide open,” William Hochberg, an intellectual property lawyer with Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP in Los Angeles, said in a phone interview. “This sends the right message that you need to be cautious and it’s not going be a dance through the rose garden.”

A federal jury in Los Angeles deliberated for one day before rejecting the claims by the trust for the late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe that Led Zeppelin’s 1971 classic was a ripoff of a 1968 instrumental, “Taurus,” that Wolfe wrote for his girlfriend. The panel on Thursday unanimously agreed Led Zeppelin didn’t use anything that was unique and original in Wolfe’s composition.

Led Zeppelin’s win comes amid an uptick in lawsuits over allegedly stolen songs following last year’s surprise verdict by a Los Angeles jury that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s 2013 mega-hit “Blurred Lines” infringed Marvin Gaye’s 1977 single “Got to Give It Up.” Gaye’s heirs won a $7.4 million award at trial — later reduced by the judge to about $5.3 million and now on appeal. This year, singers Kanye West, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran have been sued for alleged copyright violations.

Intellectual-property lawyers Danica Mathes and Larry Iser said the outcome in the “Stairway” trial shows that these cases aren’t easy to win.

“Increasingly, popular artists from nearly all time periods find their works under a microscope and ‘influences’ are asserted to be copyright infringements,” Mathes said. “The Zeppelin verdict should help to rein in these types of claims.”

The verdict came shortly after jurors were allowed by the judge to re-hear the acoustic guitar versions of “Taurus” and “Stairway” that had been used at trial to compare the two songs. The original album version of “Taurus” wasn’t allowed as evidence because the copyright at issue pertained only to the sheet music, not to the recording.

Instead, the jury of four men and four women was allowed to hear only recordings that were made specifically for the trial and live performances by expert witnesses in the courtroom limited to the written composition of “Taurus” deposited with the U.S. Copyright Office.

“We’re very disappointed,” Francis Malofiy, the lawyer for the trust that sued Led Zeppelin, said after the verdict. “We were fighting with one foot stapled to the floor and one arm tied behind our back.”

Chromatic Scale

Thursday’s verdict followed a five-day trial that focused on detailed musicological analysis of “Taurus,” which was on Spirit’s 1968 debut album, and testimony about how and where Plant and Page might have heard “Taurus” before they wrote “Stairway.”

Led Zeppelin’s defense pressed the argument that the descending chromatic scale in “Taurus,” which they were accused of having copied, is exceedingly common in popular music and isn’t subject to copyright protection.

Page, 72, and Plant, 67, were both present throughout the trial, dressed in dark suits and wearing ties. Both were called to testify about their familiarity with Spirit in the late 1960s and early 1970s and about the genesis of “Stairway.”

Page testified that he liked Spirit but didn’t even know of the controversy until his son-in-law played an Internet mash-up of the songs. Page and bass player John Paul Jones told jurors they hadn’t been aware that Spirit was also on the bill at their first U.S. concert in 1968 in Denver. While one Spirit member recalled rounds of drinking and snooker with Plant after his band played at a U.K. nightclub in 1970, Plant testified he remembered a car crash on his way home that night but not hearing or meeting Spirit.

During the trial, the jurors heard rehearsal tapes of Led Zeppelin playing “Stairway” at a studio in the south of England, as well as the full album version and an all-star rendition played at Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 2012 with Page, Plant and Jones in attendance.

Warner Music Group, Led Zeppelin’s publisher, said the verdict reaffirms the true origins of “Stairway.”

“We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and confirming what we have known for 45 years,” Page and Plant said in a statement issued by Warner Music. “We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”

Wolfe, also known as Randy California, died in 1997 and never filed an infringement lawsuit. Led Zeppelin’s lawyer Peter Anderson argued at the trial that the trust didn’t own the rights to the song, which instead belong to the publisher under a 1967 agreement.

Malofiy has said the trust had a fiduciary duty to pursue its claim following a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows for copyright-infringement lawsuits after years of delay.

Led Zeppelin will probably ask the judge to order the plaintiffs to pay its costs for defending against the lawsuit, Hochberg said.

“I’d be shocked if they didn’t try to get attorneys’ fees and I’d be surprised it they don’t get them,” Hochberg said.

During the trial U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner sustained countless objections by Led Zeppelin’s lawyer to attempts by Malofiy to get evidence before the jury that had been ruled off limits. The judge on occasion warned Malofiy to stop disregarding his rulings and pursuing lines of questioning that he was told he couldn’t ask.

The case is Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, 15-cv-03462, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).

–With assistance from Vernon Silver and Christopher Palmeri.

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