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Copyright litigation over the iconic opening riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is at it again; will the plaintiffs’ dreams of a new trial be…denied?
Wayne’s World references aside, this case is shaping up to be one of the longest-running copyright battles in recent history. Although the jury trial ended in 2016 with a verdict in favor of Led Zeppelin, a problem with the jury instructions revived the case in the 9th Circuit earlier this year.
In 2014, Michael Skidmore, the trustee for the estate of guitarist Randy Wolfe, filed suit against Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin claiming the opening guitar riff in “Stairway to Heaven” was ripped from a track called “Taurus” by Wolfe’s band, Spirit. At trial, the jury only considered the sheet music of the two songs and excerpts played by a live guitarist in the courtroom – but not the studio recordings of the songs.
Why? Because both songs were copyrighted under the United States copyright law from 1909 – which only protects the sheet music. Earlier this year, a 3-judge panel in the 9th Circuit granted the plaintiffs a new trial, but Led Zeppelin appealed to a larger panel. Which leads us to today.
In arguments before an 11-judge panel last week, the plaintiffs argued for a new trial where the jury could listen to recordings of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Plaintiffs’ counsel claimed that requiring the jury to consider the sheet music alone was “artificial analysis,” because Jimmy Page (who wrote the Stairway riff) doesn’t even read music. What we do know, they argue, is that Page’s record collection contains five Spirit albums – and access is an essential piece of copyright infringement analysis.
However, several judges on the panel were skeptical. They viewed the plaintiffs’ argument as an effort to shoehorn the recordings into being protected, saying: “You’ve got to get your sound recording in to win, don’t you? You lose the case unless you do. A hundred times out of a hundred.”
Attorneys representing the U.S. government also weighed in, siding with Led Zeppelin. They pointed out that under current copyright regulation, the sound recordings would certainly be admissible. However, since the applicable law in the case is the one from 1909, Spirit is out of luck.