Mimesis Law
14 November 2019

Jury Clears Led Zeppelin On Copyright Infringement For Stairway To Heaven

June 24, 2016 (IP Flow) — In a surprising turn of events, a Los Angeles jury cleared Led Zeppelin of copyright infringement in the case brought by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the estate of the late guitarist and founder of the band Spirit, Randy Craig Wolfe, over the song “Stairway To Heaven.” My previous post on the case can be found here.

Let’s take a minute here and note the terminology: copyright infringement. In many media outlets and all over Twitter, people have been utilizing the term interchangeably with “plagiarism” and “stealing;” neither of which is correct. Copyright infringement is defined in general terms by the United States Copyright Office:

copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”

Returning to the case at hand, the lawsuit claimed that Led Zeppelin copied the descending chord progression in the opening of Stairway written in 1971 from the first 2 and a half minutes of Spirit’s 1967 song “Taurus”. Skidmore alleged that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page heard the song prior to composing their hit whilst on tour with Spirit in the 60s. Judge Klausner allowed for a jury trial finding that there was substantial similarity with the opening 2 minutes of the Led Zeppelin track and “Taurus”.

Have a listen to the two songs and see for yourself:

During the trial, Plant testified that he had no recollection of meeting Spirit and moreover, “I don’t have a recollection of almost anyone I’ve hung out with.” Well, they didn’t call it the Swinging Sixties for nothing… Musical experts affirmed that the chord progression in question is quite common and has been used for centuries citing as an example Chim Chim Cher-ee, from the 1964 Disney musical Mary Poppins.

After deliberating for less than a day, the jury unanimously returned a verdict in favor of Led Zeppelin. In a jurisdiction which has recently tended to find in favor of the claimant, see the $5million damages award in Marvin Gaye vs Robin Thicke and Pharrell last year, this potentially is an indication of a changing of tides.

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