Led Zeppelin wins latest 'Stairway to Heaven' copyright appeal

News 10/03/2020

Led Zeppelin has triumphed in the latest copyright lawsuit over 'Stairway to Heaven'.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a lower court decision today of no copyright infringement in a lawsuit brought by the estate of Randy California of Spirit. A 2016 jury initially found the band to be faultless in a case that accused their song of plagiarising Spirit's 'Taurus' song. However, a panel of judges from the appellate court called for a new trial.

A trustee of California, Michael Skidmore, brought the first suit in 2014. The case was made more complex because Spirit's song was written before federal law provided protection for audio recordings. Under outdated regulations dating back to 1909, the songs were safeguarded through deposits of original sheet music with the U.S. Copyright Office.

This conundrum led a judge in the original trial to rule that the jury couldn't hear sound recordings since they weren't protected. The appeals court differed at first as the panel of judges had decided that the recordings should have been admitted. They also said that the jury had not been instructed properly on what constitutes as original work and what was protected.

The new trial was worrying because it may potentially set different copyright standards for older recordings. Skidmore thinks the process of transcribing original sheet music was "burdensome".

Now, the Ninth has reversed their initial opinion after the case was review en banc - meaning the entire bench of circuit-court judges are reviewing this instead of a select panel.

"These arguments cannot overcome the statutory requirements," Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown said in the majority 54-page decision. "Skidmore also complains that restricting protection to the deposit copy disadvantages musicians who do not read music, because it can be time-consuming and expensive to make an accurate deposit copy. Apparently, that was not a problem here, as Wolfe's work was transcribed for the sheet music deposit. Digital transcription and other technological advances undercut this argument – not to mention that for decades now, sound recordings have been accepted as the deposit copy."

The court also overturned the Ninth Circuit's "inverse ratio rule", a precedent that has been in place for copyright suits for almost 50 years. To win an infringement case, plaintiffs have to prove that two works are "substantially similar". The rule also held that the more famous the song was, the less similiarity was required to establish copyright infringement.

"The world of copyright protection for music changed dramatically during the 20th century," McKeown concedes in the judicial decision, "and those changes dictate our analysis here."