A U.S. appeals court has ordered a new trial in the lawsuit that accuses Led Zeppelin of copying an obscure 1960s instrumental into the classic 1971 Zeppelin anthem “Stairway to Heaven.”
Two years ago federal court jury in Los Angeles two years ago found Led Zeppelin did not steal the famous riff from the song “Taurus” by the band Spirit.
The estate of musician Randy California of Spirit appealed the decision and challenged the conclusion that even though Zeppelin songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant may have heard “Taurus” before they composed “Stairway,” the songs were not musically similar enough to rise to the level of copyright infringement. The claim came four decades after the songs were written.
Immediately following the verdict, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant released a statement saying that they were glad to see the issue resolved saying “We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favour, putting to rest questions about the origins of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and confirming what we have known for 45 years,” they said. “We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”
The plaintiff’s attorney Francis Malofiy later claimed he lost his case on a technicality, insisting that it was unfair the jury was unable to listen to the sound recording of “Taurus” and instead was limited to hearing an expert performance of the registered sheet music. Malofiy himself received over a hundred sustained objections and “multiple admonishments” during the trial, The band’s publishing company Warner/Chappell Music subsequently filed documents asking the judge to order the plaintiffs to pay over $613,000 to cover the costs of defending the lawsuit.
But now a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has ruled unanimously that the lower court judge provided erroneous jury instructions that misled jurors about copyright law central to the suit. It has sent the case back to the court for another trial.
The jury found “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” were not substantially similar, according to the 9th Circuit ruling. But the court said U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner failed to advise jurors that while individual elements of a song such as its notes or scale may not qualify for copyright protection, a combination of those elements may if it is sufficiently original. Judge Richard Paez also said that Klausner had wrongly directred jurors that copyright does not protect chromatic scales, arpeggios or short sequences of three notes: “This error was not harmless as it undercut testimony by Skidmore’s [Trustee of the California estate] expert that Led Zeppelin copied a chromatic scale that had been used in an original manner,
Interestingly the 9th Circuit isaid in its ruling that the jurors should have been allowed to hear the recording to help establish that Page had “access” to “Taurus,” meaning he would have been familiar with it.