Stairway to Heaven? Nope, to the Courthouse

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: May 24, 2016

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Led ZeppelinAcid rock icons Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are going to have to face a jury trial on the question of whether one of Led Zeppelin’s most famous songs, Stairway to Heaven, was a rip-off of the song Taurus by the band Spirit.

In 2014, Michael Skidmore, Trustee for the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin and associated musicians and record companies for copyright infringement and “violation of the right of attribution.”

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking to get the lawsuit thrown out. In an April, 2016, ruling the judge mostly denied the request for summary judgement, and ordered that it will be up to a jury to decide whether or not Stairway to Heaven violates the copyright for Taurus.

There are several interesting features to this particular case that highlight how copyright infringement lawsuits for music work.

Understanding the Facts

One issue in copyright infringement cases is clearly “who owns the copyright?” It’s not always a straightforward question.

The plaintiffs argue that Taurus was written in August 1967 in the Ode Records studio, after Wolfe had signed an agreement with Hollenbeck Music assigning new songs to Hollenbeck.

Wolfe’s estate argues that Taurus was written in 1966, before Wolfe signed the recording contract and exclusive songwriting agreement. They also offer testimony that the song was publicly performed a number of times at the Ash Grove club in Hollywood in early ’67, before the agreement was signed.

There is also a debate about whether comments Wolfe made indicate that he abandoned his rights in Taurus, or didn’t care that Led Zeppelin copied it.

Timing of the Lawsuit

Stairway to Heaven was first recorded in 1970. That’s 46 years ago. Even if the song infringes the copyright of Taurus, doesn’t the “statute of limitations” apply?

Copyright law has what amounts to a three-year statute of limitations, a “lookback” law that says you have to file suit within three years of when you could reasonably have discovered the infringement. The defendants also tried to invoke a claim of “laches,” which is a legal concept sort of like “use it or lose it.” Under the laches doctrine, if there is an unreasonable delay in enforcing your rights you could lose them.

In this case the judge threw out the concept of laches as inapplicable.

The defendants released a new, remastered version of Stairway to Heaven in 2014. This new release restarted the clock on the three-year lookback as it’s a new act of alleged infringement. So the judge ordered the lawsuit can proceed.

Does Infringement Exist in this Case?

And then there is the question at the heart of the lawsuit: does Stairway to Heaven sufficiently mimic Taurus to be a case of copyright infringement?

There are no perfectly clear guidelines for how similar a song can sound to another without infringing copyright. Musicians obviously are influenced by a wide variety of music. You can hear a lot of old blues influences in rock music. When does it cross the line from “influence” to “copying?”

A layperson can listen to the two songs (see links above) and get a feel for how similar they are. In the court case, experts submitted lengthy reports (in one case over 30 pages) on both sides of the argument as to whether the songs are substantially similar or not.

The judge ruled there is sufficient grounds to think the songs are similar enough for there to be copyright infringement that the case should be decided by a jury.

There were a number of additional technical legal issues raised by the defense, which the judge did not find convincing enough to get the defendants off the hook for a trial.

(Photo Credit: “Spotify Spotlight Led Zeppelin 2013” by Jay Kogami is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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