Led Zeppelin Found Not Guilty in “Stairway to Heaven“ Case

Author: Inga Lukauskiene, Associated Partner, Attorney-at-law, Patent Attorney at METIDA, Court Mediator; Ausrine Sakalauskaite, junior lawyer at METIDA

bestledzeppelinsong_3712034663The music industry is no stranger to cases of copyright infringement, therefore there has been more than one dispute over some peace of music. One of the most famous cases took place in 2015, when Jury found that „Blurred Lines“, a popular song by Robin Thicke, is nothing more than a copy of Marvin Gaye‘s song „Got to Give it Up“ (1977). Although the dispute between Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye caused a whole lot of attention, ever since May, 2014 music fans all over the world were waiting for a court decision in yet another case – M. Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin.

June 23rd, 2016 became a proud day for Led Zeppelin fans – group members were cleared of plagiarism charges of one of the most famous songs of all time –“Stairway to Heaven“ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnFhf3BisUA), thus rock history remains unchanged.
The case was initiated back in 2014 when Michael Skidmore, a trustee of Spirit‘s leader Randy California (real name – Randy Craig Wolfe), filed a suit against two members of Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page (James Patrick Page) and Robert Plant (Robert Anthony Plant) in order to prevent the reissue of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, which includes “Stairway to Heaven,” and to have the songwriting credits for this song changed.

The prosecution had argued that the impressive „Stairway to Heaven“ (1970-71) riff was taken from Spirit‘s song „Taurus“ (1968 m., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFHLO_2_THg). The applicant stated that Led Zeppelin had heard „Taurus“ after the two bands played in the same club in Birmingham.

It should be noted that a copyright infringement occurs when a person reproduces, distributes, displays, performs a specific work or uses it (or part of it) in his derivative work. In many cases it‘s impossible to submit direct evidences of copying, therefore a plaintiff can prove infringement of his rights by presenting evidence that the accused had access to the original work and (or) there is a substantial similarity between original work and allegedly infringing work.

Although during the trial Jimmy Page and Robert Plant denied ever having had any memory of hearing „Taurus“ in a concert with Spirit, which, by the way, took place more than 40 years ago, the jury rejected this argument, claiming that there‘s no doubt that by being an opening act during Spirtit‘s concert tour Led Zeppelin members had a chance to hear their song.

However, the base to dismiss the suit was simple – the song in question wasn‘t at all plagiarized. Led Zeppelin lawyer called to the stand a music expert who explained that the chord sequence used both in „Taurus“ and in „Stairway to Heaven“ has been used for 300 years, so it does not have the essential feature in order to be protected – originality.

During the trial, Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant was called to testify as well as Mark Andes (a former member of „Spirit“) and M. Skidmore. The jury also called to the stand various musicologists and other experts who spoke about the development of „Stairway to Heaven“ and debated the substantial similarity of comparative songs. After a week of witness statements and repeated listenings of both „Starway to Heaven“ and „Taurus“, the jury delivered its verdict. Even though it‘s clear that Randy California is an author of „Taurus“ and Led Zeppelin had heard the song, despite the fact that songs in question share some similarities, by comparing these songs the jury came to the conclussion that there‘s no substantial similarity between the songs suggesting plagiarism.

Thus, in order to avoid expensive, long lasting series of disputes over the copyright of the work, it is advisable to keep in mind that in a sense it is alright to pay homage to another artist in your own work, however, to copy other artist’s work or even a certain part of it is prohibited. If you still want to use a piece of someone else‘s work, it would be best to contact the copyright holders and agree on paid or free of charge use of that particular piece of work. It would be wise to consult with lawyers as soon as you become aware of your copyrights infringement – if your original work or part of it is being used without consent, it is likely that such infringement could be terminated.

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