Appeal seeks to revive copyright case targeting Led Zeppelin classic ‘Stairway to Heaven’

By Steve Brachmann
March 25, 2017

“Led Zeppelin in Via Galvani Milano 1971” by ignoto. Public domain.

On March 15th, an appeal filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (9th Cir.) gave new life to a copyright battle that has been waged over arguably the most popular rock song of all time. Counsel representing Randy Wolfe, guitarist for the rock band Spirit, appealed an earlier decision from California district court, charging that the court erred in reaching its decision that members of the classic rock band Led Zeppelin copied a Spirit song to compose the song Stairway to Heaven.

The official appeal filed by Michael Skidmore, the trustee for the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, charges that the lower court’s erroneous actions led the jury to reach the decision that Led Zeppelin did not engage in copyright infringement of Spirit’s song Taurus, a song which contains a very similar opening chord progression with Stairway to Heaven.

The most important of these errors was that the trial court refused to let the jury hear the full and complete composition of ‘Taurus’ embodied in the sound recordings that Jimmy Page possessed, instead limiting the comparison to an outline of the ‘Taurus’ composition in the deposit copy lead sheet. The jury was not allowed to compare the complete ‘Taurus’ composition that defendant James Patrick Page possess and allegedly copied, but instead was forced to make an artificial comparison between an inaccurate version of ‘Taurus’ more dissimilar to ‘Stairway to Heaven’. This was highly prejudicial and requires reversal.”

The appeal filed by Skidmore includes a statement of eight issues presented for review by 9th Cir. These include consideration of whether the lower court committed reversible errors in failing to admit the sound recording of Taurus to prove access; failing to instruct the jury that combinations and arrangements of unprotectable musical elements are protectable; failing to play the requested and correct version of the Taurus deposit copy for the jury during deliberations; and violating the plaintiff’s due process rights by limiting the plaintiff’s time to present his case to ten hours.

Album cover to ‘Led Zeppelin IV’, the album containing ‘Stairway to Heaven.’

Skidmore’s appeal argues that the California district court incorrectly found that the composition of Taurus which the jury was to consider was not a recording of the song as was publicly heard around 1966-67. Rather, the court limited the composition strictly to a lead sheet of Taurus submitted in 1967 to the U.S. Copyright Office, a version which was never performed or never seen by anyone other than the transcriptionist. The appellant cites the 1909 Copyright Act, which governs works created prior to 1976, which gives Taurus common law copyright protection at the moment of creation.

The appeal also charges that the court committed reversible error by failing to give an instruction on the inverse ratio rule. This rule holds that if a plaintiff can prove a higher degree of access to copyrighted material, the jury may lower the burden of proof for the plaintiff to prove substantial similarity. Part of the case’s background includes the fact that members of Led Zeppelin owned Spirit albums and the jury had found that Led Zeppelin had access to Taurus, even if the jury found that plaintiff did not prove substantial similarity.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a writer located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He has become a regular contributor to IPWatchdog.com, writing about technology, innovation and is the primary author of the Companies We Follow series. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients.

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