Led Zeppelin Scores Big Copyright Win Over “Stairway to Heaven”

The Led Zeppelin copyright case over their signature tune “Stairway to Heaven” has survived its latest challenge. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict finding that the song did not infringe on “Taurus.” A lawsuit had alleged that the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven” was stolen from the 1968 song.

The decision is also notable for overturning a long-held precedent known as the inverse ratio rule. The rule, which has been rejected by other courts, has been used in 9thCircuit cases for 43 years. A plaintiff in a copyright suit must show a couple of things. First, the plaintiff has to show that the defendant had access to the plaintiff’s work. Second, the two works in question have to be “substantially similar.”

Under the rule, the more access to the plaintiff’s work is shown, the less similarity was required to prove infringement. Record labels and musical artists have long opposed the inverse ratio rule.

In dispensing with the rule, the court held that the digital age has diluted the notion of “access.” Countless works of music are readily available on YouTube and other platforms. In addition, the rule effectively establishes a lower burden of proof for copyright infringement claims. Observers have slammed the rule as making little sense and being unfairly prejudicial to defendants.

More specifically, the court rejected claims of similarity between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus.” The 9th Circuit noted that copyright protection is not extended to a few notes. The four-note sequence, which is common in music, is not the essence of a song that is worth copyrighting.

Beginning of the Led Zeppelin Copyright Case

The Led Zeppelin copyright case dates back to 2014. Journalist Michael Skidmore filed a lawsuit on behalf of the estate of Randy Wolfe. Wolfe was the frontman for the band Spirit, which made “Taurus.” In 2016, a jury found against the plaintiffs in the case. Then in September 2018, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit breathed new life into the matter. But it was only on a technicality: the trial judge had given the wrong jury instructions, ruled the panel. A new trial was ordered.

Attorneys for Led Zeppelin appealed the decision. The full circuit heard the case in September 2019.

The Led Zeppelin case is a reminder of how dramatic copyright cases can be. It was not expected that the inverse ratio rule would be thrown out. Those who criticized the rule noted that it did not come up much in oral argument for this case. Overturning the rule will likely encourage artists and record labels accused of copyright infringements.

Of course, most copyright cases do not change long-standing precedent. No matter which side you are on, having an experienced copyright infringement attorney is critical. The first thing your attorney will do is conduct a thorough investigation of the facts. That’s a necessary first step in copyright or any other intellectual property rights case. If you’re the plaintiff, or the defendant, that means understanding the works in question and the facts surrounding them.

We also endeavor to understand counter-arguments against your position. It’s not enough to know the strengths of your case – you have to know the weaknesses, too. That enables us to respond proactively and to use litigation techniques where applicable. For example, a motion to dismiss may be appropriate if the plaintiff does not make a reasonable argument for infringement. Regardless of whether you’re the plaintiff or defendant, the attorneys of Eddington & Worley will fight hard for your case.

We Can Help Resolve Your Copyright Dispute

At Eddington & Worley, we are well-versed in all aspects of copyright law. We also handle trademarks, patents, and other issues involving intellectual property. If someone is misappropriating your property, or you’ve been accused of it, let us show you how we can help. Contact our intellectual property law firm in Texas today to schedule your consultation.

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