U.S. Copyright Office Submits Opinion in Favour of Led Zeppelin in Copyright Infringement Dispute
On 8 November 1971, Led Zeppelin released what would become arguably the most well-known rock song of all time, ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Despite never having been released in the US, the song was one of the most requested tracks on American FM radio in the 1970s.
In 2014, Michael Skidmore, trustee of ‘Randy Wolfe’ (aka Randy California), late guitarist with the band Spirit filed a claim alleging that Stairway to Heaven had used large parts of the Spirit song ‘Taurus’, in particular a 38 second long passage which features a similar repeated chord and descending scale. The two bands had performed together in 1968 and 1969 so the writers of the Led Zeppelin song Jimmy Page (guitarist of the band), and Robert Plant (singer) would allegedly have heard the song multiple times. The claim was estimated at around $40 million.
In the first instance, Led Zeppelin’s lawyers argued that the chord progression had been widely used throughout hundreds of years of history of music, having been utilised on the Beatles song ‘Michelle’ among many others. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant testified that they did not remember hearing ‘Taurus’. The jury found in Led Zeppelin’s favour, on the basis that the similarity in the two songs was insufficient to constitute copyright infringement.
An appeal was filed in 2017. A Ninth Circuit panel found that the court had erred in leading the jury to conclude that the chord and scale used were not copyrightable, and should have been given instructions which make it clear that an arrangement with unprotectable elements, can in some instances be sufficiently original to attract copyright protection. The Ninth circuit then went on to order a full panel rehearing of the appeal, which will take place this September.
In supporting their arguments against the claim via an Amicus Brief (a legal opinion filed by non-litigants with a strong interest in the subject matter), the U.S. Copyright Office stated that “expressions that are standard, stock or common to a particular subject matter…are not protectable under copyright law” (Satava v. Lowry, 323 F.3d 805, 810 (9th Cir. 2003)). Therefore, although an ‘original selection and arrangement of otherwise uncopyrightable components’ may be protectable - Apple Computer, Inc. v. Microsoft Corp., 35 F.3d 1435, 1445 (9th Cir. 1994), albeit given thin protection, which requires the copying to be identical. As the passages of Stairway to Heaven and Taurus were not musically identical, the jury’s finding of no infringement should be affirmed.
This case has lessons for individuals and businesses operating not just in the music industry, but in a wider business context. While many businesses budget for initial legal claims (whether acting as Claimant or Defendant), it is common that initial proceedings may not be the end of a matter, given that parties could bring multiple appeals and bring new actions under different entities (even where there are no grounds to do so, which can still require time and costs to be incurred). This should be factored into litigation preparation, from both a staff resource and financial perspective – would your business have the resources to defend (or bring an action) with appeals, where costs and time can go far beyond the initial proceedings.