Stairway to Litigation
The famous Led Zeppelin song ‘Stairway to Heaven’ which has made millions sway to its tune recently struck a wrong cord due to copyright infringement allegations levied against it in 2014. It was alleged that the introduction to the band’s most celebrated song was taken from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental titled ‘Taurus’. After a much publicized legal battle between the estate of Spirit’s lead guitarist Randy Wolfe and Led Zeppelin ended in 2016 wherein a Los Angeles District Court Judge decided in the favour of Led Zeppelin and stated that there was no evidence of copyright infringement the dispute has since resurfaced as a retrial was ordered.
The Wolfe estate lawyer had estimated the lawsuit to be of $40 million. The allegations had cropped up because way back when both the bands Spirit and Led Zeppelin were listed together and it was alleged that Led Zeppelin would have known about the song and would have access to hearing it and therefore the chances of subsequently copying it increases. The jury which was present for the trial wasn’t allowed legally to hear the original versions of both the songs rather they heard an expert recreate the exact music performed by both the bands in order for them to arrive at a conclusion. The Zeppelin’s attorney contented that the part claimed to have been infringed was in fact part of an old musical tradition dating back to the 1600s and pieces of it were also found in the Beatles song ‘Michelle’.
It was reported that if the estate of Randy Wolfe had won they would have been entitled only of the profits from ‘Stairway to Heaven’ from the past three years and would also have been entitled to the prospective profits. The suit quickly became a hype in the music industry, as it was the most high-profile copyright case to follow the feud between the estate of Marvin Gaye’s and Robin Thicke in the ‘Blurred Lines’ lawsuit. In that case, Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay $7.4 million (later reduced to $5.3 million) to the Gayes after a jury ruled that the song infringed on the vibe of Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up’.
However, after the case was adjudged in favour of Led Zeppelin, a retrial was ordered in September 2018 completely disregarding the jury’s conclusions in the case. The judgment was discarded due to faulty instructions given to jury. a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial. The panel found that U.S. District Court Judge Gary Klausner gave instructions that failed to make clear that an arrangement of otherwise unprotectable elements in a song can be sufficiently original to merit copyright protection. “Without a selection and arrangement instruction, the jury instructions severely undermined Skidmore’s argument for extrinsic similarity, which is exactly what the jury found lacking,” wrote Circuit Judge Richard A. Paez, for the court.
This leads us to the same age old debate in copyright, that what amounts to substantial copying and what doesn’t. Here the panel was of the opinion that it wasn’t made clear to the jury that what combination of notes of the songs could also amount to infringement and that the knowledge could have altered the stance of the jury and thus a retrial was deemed necessary to arrive at a just decision in the copyright case.