Led Zeppelin Victorious in ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Copyright Case

October 7, 2020 by Dan McCue
Led Zeppelin. (Photo by Tony Morelli via Wikipedia Commons)

WASHINGTON – Fans of Led Zeppelin are feeling a “Whole Lotta Love” for the U.S. Supreme Court this week after the justices declined to take up the long-running copyright battle over the band’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

The justices did not explain their rationale for refusing to revive the case in a lengthy order list released Monday, but their decision ends six years of litigation over claims songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant plagiarized a lesser-known group’s song.

At issue in the underlying lawsuit was whether Page and Plant lifted the song’s iconic acoustic introduction from a 1968 song called “Taurus” by the group Spirit.

Journalist Michael Skidmore filed the suit in 2014, on behalf of the estate of Randy Wolfe, the late Spirit frontman, who drowned in the Pacific Ocean in 1997 while trying to rescue his son from a rip current.

Skidmore lost and immediately appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal his attorneys argued the jury verdict was flawed because the jurors were never allowed to actually hear the album recording of “Taurus” at trial. Instead, the judge insisted they rely only on the sheet music deposited with the U.S. Copyright Office.

A three-judge 9th Circuit panel initially agreed with Skidmore, and ordered a new trial due to bad jury instructions.

But on appeal of that decision, the entire 9th Circuit held the lower court judge acted appropriately because the 1909 Copyright Act protects sheet music rights, but not the recordings of songs.

The appellate court ruling also struck down the legal standard known as the inverse ratio rule, that set a somewhat lower bar for plaintiffs in copyright cases to assert similarity if they could prove the alleged infringer had access to the work they were accused of pilfering.

In this case, Led Zeppelin was known to have been the opening act for Spirit on a portion of the British band’s first U.S. tour, and Page himself acknowledged owning the Spirit album on which “Taurus” appeared.

The 9th Circuit ruling also tightened the rules for claiming infringement based on the “arrangement” of unprotectable musical elements, like a collection of notes or a riff.

Skidmore appealed to the Supreme Court, claiming the 9th Circuit had ruled too favorably for the music industry and “given Hollywood exactly what it has always wanted: a copyright test which it cannot lose.”

Skidmore went on to claim the 9th Circuit ruling was “a disaster for independent artists” and “the end of real copyright protection for musical works.”

Following the 9th Circuit ruling Skidmore’s attorney, Francis Malofiy, told Rolling Stone magazine the outcome of the case was “a big win for the multi-billion dollar [music] industry against the creative.”

“I love Led Zeppelin, as a man, and I can separate my appreciation for them as four band members playing amazing music, but they’re the greatest art thieves of all time and they got away with it again today,” Malofiy said. “They won on a technicality. But they absolutely stole that piece of work.”

“Stairway to Heaven,” released in 1971, was a staple of FM rock radio for the remainder of the 1970s.

As is their custom, the justices did not explain why they declined to take up the case.

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