On Thursday 23 June, the eight-day trial concerning the alleged copyright infringement by Led Zeppelin concluded as the jury ruled that the iconic guitar riff intro of the band's classic track "Stairway to Heaven" was their own composition and not taken from the song "Taurus" by Spirit, released four years beforehand.
Although it was acknowledged that both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, lead singer and guitarist of Led Zeppelin respectively, had access to the lesser known song before writing Stairway, the jury failed to see enough similarities between the two compositions to justify the charge of plagiarism.
The suit against the acclaimed band was filed by Michael Skidmore, trustee for the estate of Randy 'California' Wolfe, late guitarist and songwriter for Spirit. Skidmore was clearly disappointed with the verdict, telling The New York Times, "It was David versus Goliath, and the big corporations won."
The verdict was backed by a number of musicologists, summoned to the court as expert witnesses, who agreed that while both songs do indeed share the same descending A-minor chord progression, arpeggios, and a similar rhythm, these musical elements have been present in music for centuries and therefore cannot be credited to any one composer. Supporting their assessments, Pete Anderson, the lawyer representing Led Zeppelin, is reported by the Guardian to have said, "He [Wolfe] didn't create the key of A minor."
Skidmore was represented by lawyer Francis Malofiy, who implied to Rolling Stone that he felt the trial was unfair and that the legendary band's triumph was based on a "technicality". As the jury was not allowed to listen to the album recording of "Taurus", the members instead had to listen to renditions, played in the courtroom, by musicians who performed using the original sheet music. According to Maloify, the simple sheet music for "Taurus" was not an accurate representation of the recording on the album, which is the version Page allegedly had access to when writing Stairway.
Maloify commented that the plaintiff is currently considering an appeal.
Intellectual property lawyers believe that the verdict of this case could potentially put a damper on the amount of infringement allegations that will be made against professional musicians in the future. While in the past year there have been a number of high-profile IP cases within the music industry, this ruling comes as a stark reminder that plaintiff's claims are very far from cut and dried.
Last year's "Blurred Lines" trial saw artists Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams ordered to pay Marvin Gaye's family a sum of $7.4 million (later reduced to $5.3 million) when their 2013 summer hit was found to have plagiarised Gaye's "Got to Give it Up". And while this may appear to have been a precursor for the Stairway allegations, many other such claims are now, almost certainly, being re-analysed.
According to William Hochberg, an intellectual property lawyer in Los Angeles, the verdict in The "Stairway to Heaven" case has "created a sharper, clearer line in terms of what is protectable and what is not in music". Speaking to Ars Technica, Hochberg went on to talk about the importance of inspiration in art and how the legal system should not inhibit those using the work of the past as the grounds for their creativity.
"In music, as in all creative pursuits, the successful ones stand on the shoulders of giants before them. If our legal system uniformly banned the age-old process of using basic building blocks from the past, our copyright law is misused and the public suffers a creativity drought."
And while no one wants to see creatives gagged by IP rights, the Stairway case is clearly an example of how complex intellectual property disputes can be and how case law continues to provide ongoing food for thought for lawyers and their clients.
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