Music Monday – “Stairway to Heaven” Rights, Not an Easy Climb?

Critically acclaimed and Grammy Hall of fame song, “Stairway to Heaven” is still battling out under copyright claims. The famous Led Zeppelin song was allegedly not as original as we all thought.

In June Led Zeppelin was victorious in a lawsuit claimed that the guitar riff in “Stairway to Heaven” was copied from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.  After Spirit songwriter Randy Wolfe’s estate demanded the lawsuit which would potentially rewrite rock ‘n’ roll history, the jury came to a decision that Led Zeppelin did not copy Spirit. This decision was reached after weeks of testimony and arguments which included the jury hearing testimonies from Sprit band members, musicologists, and other expert witnesses on whether the song was “substantially similar.”

Both Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, denied having access to “Taurus” despite performing concerts with Spirt on previous occasions. Although the jury found that the members indeed heard the song, they found that both songs were not substantially similar in the extrinsic elements and after listening to both songs for half an hour, the jury sided for Led Zepplin.

During Wolfe’s lifetime, there was ever an issue and it was only shortly after the songwriter’s death in 1997 that Skidmore claimed ownership of the copyrighted sheet music and brought it into court, despite decades of inaction.

However, the saga doesn’t end there. This Wednesday, attorney Francis Malofiy submitted a 90-page brief claiming that it is “quite clear” that Jimmy Page, a member of Led Zeppelin, had used “Taurus” and that the jury didn’t find the songs substantially similar due to evidentiary errors and erroneous instructions.

These errors include, not letting the jury hear the full and complete composition of “Taurus” in the sound recording Page possessed and limited it a comparison between an outline of the “Taurus” composition. In the mid-70s the songs themselves were documented as holding the copyright protection instead of what was written in the sheet music. As such, the issue of sound recording versus the sheet music is significant to the appeal.

However, in the recent decision of the “Blurred Lines” case, attorneys for Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams successfully argued the court erroneously allowed playing of musical excerpts based on the sound recording.

In the present appeal, Malofiy argues against the idea that the jury should disregard musical building blocks that are not protected by copyright and that the court erred by not explaining to the jury that “combinations otherwise unprotectable elements can themselves be afforded protection.”

Malofiy also argues that the court failed to instruct the jury enough on the “inverse ratio rule” whereby a higher degree of access to a previous work, the lower the bar is to prove that there is a substantial similarity. “Access and substantial similarity are inextricably linked, yet the jury was asked to render a verdict without a key instruction that describes this relationship.”

For now, we will just have to wait and see if Malofiy is successful in the appeal. Notwithstanding the results, this is a case that highlights the copious angles of arguments for artists to defend claims of song theft.

Credit: Jessica Wong

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