Rock Band Led Zeppelin Finally Wins 2014 Copyright Infringement Case
Who said being famous was easy? Artists have always had to protect their work no matter the size of their following. But fame certainly carries a particular weight to it when it comes to the sheer number of thefts and lawsuits. Rock band Led Zeppelin has been on both ends of copyright cases, having fought against dozens of claims that their songs were ripped off all while making dozens of claims that their own songs had been ripped off by someone else.
A 2014 lawsuit alleged that Zeppelin’s popular song “Stairway to Heaven” too closely resembled another song called “Taurus,” which was performed by the rock band Spirit.
Like most copyright infringement cases, it was long and arduous for both sides. Journalist Michael Skidmore, who was a co-trustee to the Randy Craige Wolfe Trust, filed the lawsuit on the trust’s behalf. The trust was named after Randy California, who was a member of Spirit. He died in 1997, which means he couldn’t exactly build the case himself.
Skidmore’s case fell apart (the first time) in 2016 when a jury decided that “Stairway to Heaven” violated no copyright protections. But after an impartial panel decided that Judge Gary Klausner had failed to give the jury for that trial accurate instruction before they came to a verdict, the case was allowed a second trial in 2018. Oh well. Naturally, Zeppelin appealed the panel’s decisions, requesting that a super-sized panel hear the case instead.
The appeal was finally heard in 2019 by the super-sized 11-judge panel. They came to a 73-page decision. Judge Margaret McKeown wrote, “The trial and appeal process has been a long climb up the Stairway to Heaven.”
Skidmore’s attorney Francis Malofiy, who operates from a cloak and dagger law firm called Francis Alexander LLC, tried to play recordings from both songs for the jury during the first trial, but his request was denied by Judge Gary Klausner based on old copyright laws. “Taurus” was recorded when the Copyright Act of 1909 was still in effect, which only protected sheet music. The sound of the music didn’t become protected intellectual property (IP) until 1972.
In other words, the songs might actually sound alike — but that didn’t matter.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals described overturning the original court’s decision: “Although we are cautious in overruling precedent — as we should be — the constellation of problems and inconsistencies in the application of the inverse ratio rule prompts us to abrogate the rule.”
The inverse ratio rule was only applicable because of the accused party’s access to the other party’s music. It lowers the standard of proof required by the jury, but Judge Klausner forgot to mention these facts to the jury.
The 9th Circuit Court overturned the inverse ratio rule, handing Zeppelin the final victory: “By rejecting inverse ratio rule, we are not suggesting that access cannot serve as circumstantial evidence of actual copying in all cases,” the court said. “Access, however, in no way can prove substantial similarity.”
Compare the songs for yourself: