Led Zeppelin wins Stairway to Heaven copyright fight

Led Zeppelin’s six year-long copyright battle over their classic ’70s song Stairway to Heaven has finally come to an end.

The US Supreme Court refused today (Monday, October 5) to hear the case following a petition filed by the estate of Spirit’s Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California) in August.

The legal battle was brought by Randy California’s estate in 2014, accusing Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of copying the opening riff of Stairway to Heaven from the Spirit song, Taurus.

The ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in March that Stairway to Heaven did not infringe Spirit’s Taurus, upholding the jury verdict given in 2016, which originally cleared the band.

As reported by Law360, an explanation wasn’t given for why the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, but noted that the court only grants a small percentage of petitions.

Today’s news marks a significant legal victory for Led Zeppelin as well as their publishing and record label partner, Warner Music Group.

It also brings an end to one of the music industry’s longest-running and highest profile copyright infringement cases in recent years.

Led Zeppelin’s case even received rare support from the US Government in a copyright case of this nature, after the Department of Justice filed an amicus brief (friend of the court brief) in August last year stating, amongst other things, that “the allegedly infringing work is not virtually identical”.

The DOJ’s backing followed the news in June 2019 that the US Appeals Court would revisit the case after a Ninth Circuit three-judge panel ruled 3-0 in September 2018 that “erroneous jury instructions” were provided by the judge in the 2016 trial, and namely that the jury weren’t played the recordings of Taurus or Stairway To Heaven.

Spirit’s song was written in 1967, so the judge ruled at the time that only the sheet music was protected under pre-1972 copyright law, according to NBC News.

The brief filed by the DOJ urged that “the copy of the work deposited with the Copyright Office defines the scope of the copyright” and that “the district court’s judgment in favor of defendants should be affirmed because the relevant portion of the copyrighted work is entitled, at most, to a thin copyright, and the allegedly infringing work is not virtually identical”.

The August petition from California’s estate argued that, “If copyright protection … is limited to deposit sheet music, then virtually all songs composed before 1978 will lose almost all copyright protection because the lead sheets submitted for them were uniformly incomplete. This includes ‘Stairway to Heaven.'”

In March, the court also rejected the inverse ratio rule, “which requires a lower standard of proof of substantial similarity when a high degree of access is shown”.

The lawsuit was brought by Randy Wolfe estate trustee Michael Skidmore in 2014, seeking recognition, plus a share of the royalties earned.

Skidmore became a co-trustee of the Trust in 2006 after the death of Wolfe’s mother who established the Randy Craig Wolfe (aka California) Trust following Wolfe’s death in 1997.Music Business Worldwide