A federal appeals court has restored a jury verdict that found Led Zeppelin did not steal ‘Stairway to Heaven’ from an obscure song written four years earlier.
In a 9-2 decision, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said on Monday that lead singer Robert Plant’s and guitarist Jimmy Page’s 1971 rock anthem did not infringe Taurus, written by guitarist Randy Wolfe of the band Spirit.
‘The trial and appeal process has been a long climb up the ‘Stairway to Heaven,” Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown wrote for the majority.
A federal appeals court on Monday restored a jury verdict that found Led Zeppelin (l-r John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page) did not steal ‘Stairway to Heaven’ from an obscure song written four years earlier
In a 9-2 decision, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said on Monday that lead singer Robert Plant’s and guitarist Jimmy Page’s 1971 rock anthem did not infringe Taurus, written by guitarist Randy Wolfe (pictured in 1989) of the band Spirit
Wolfe, who performed as Randy California, drowned in 1997, but a trustee for his estate sought damages potentially reaching millions of dollars.
‘Obviously, the court got it wrong,’ the trustee’s lawyer, Francis Malofiy, said in an interview.
‘This is a big loss for creators, those who copyright laws are meant to protect.’ Malofiy said he may appeal to the US Supreme Court.
Lawyers for Led Zeppelin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Led Zeppelin requested that the order for a new trial be reconsidered by a larger panel, whose decision, based on the 1909 Copyright Act, puts the original ruling back in place.
Stairway is estimated to have grossed $3.4million during a five-year period at issue in the earlier civil trial.
Page, Plant and another surviving bandmate, John Paul Jones, testified in 2016 that the chord sequence in question had ‘been around forever’.
The decision in the five-year-old case was a victory for a music industry still combating fallout from a 2015 verdict that Robin Thicke’s and Pharrell Williams’ 2013 smash Blurred Lines copied Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit Got to Give It Up.
Jurors awarded Gaye’s children $7.4million, which was later reduced to $5.3million.
The singer Katy Perry is appealing a $2.8million verdict reached last August in a separate copyright case over her song ‘Dark Horse.’
Led Zeppelin requested that the order for a new trial be reconsidered by a larger panel, whose decision, based on the 1909 Copyright Act, puts the original ruling back in place. Plant (left) holds hands raised high with British guitarist Page(right) during a reunion in 1988
Wolfe’s trustee, Michael Skidmore, said Stairway and Taurus had similar chord progressions, and that Page may have written ‘Stairway’ after hearing ‘Taurus’ while Led Zeppelin and Spirit toured together.
In a June 2016 verdict, jurors found that while Plant and Page had access to Taurus, its riff was not intrinsically similar to Stairway.
Jurors were not allowed to listen to Taurus, and Monday’s decision found this and other alleged errors did not require a new trial.
More importantly, the appeals court ditched its ‘inverse ratio’ rule, which says the more access songwriters have to earlier works, the lower the bar for proving substantial similarity.
McKeown said the rule ‘defies logic,’ given how the concept of access has become ‘increasingly diluted’ as more songs become available on Netflix, Spotify, YouTube and other platforms.
She also said minor song similarities might not support infringement claims.
‘We have never extended copyright protection to just a few notes,’ she wrote.
Five of the six federal appeals courts to consider the inverse ratio rule now reject it. The 9th Circuit covers California and eight other Western states.