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Jury instruction challenge leads to successful appeal in copyright case

Led Zeppelin to head to court to defend “Stairway to Heaven” from allegations of copyright infringement. Again.The name Led Zeppelin may trigger memories of classic rock hits like “Immigrant Song,” Kashmir,” and arguably their most popular hit “Stairway to Heaven.” It probably does not trigger a connection with a copyright case currently working its way through the court system.

The courtroom battle involves the hit “Stairway to Heaven.” The legal battle began in 2015 with the death of another musician, Randy Wolfe, also known as “Randy California” as nicknamed by Jimi Hendrix. Upon Randy California’s death, his estate claimed significant portions of Stairway to Heaven were stolen from Randy California’s works. Most notably, the estate claims the opening instrumental to the rock anthem was Randy California’s work. As such, the estate filed suit for copyright infringement against the Zep.

The estate used two facts to support this claim. First, the Zep was the opening act for Randy California’s band Spirit. As a result, the Zep had access to the musician’s music. Second, the fact that the two songs sound “remarkably similar.”

As noted in a previous piece, available here, the lower court agreed with the Zep and found there was no copyright violation. Randy California’s estate appealed.

Appealing a copyright case: Rock band heads back to court

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit found the jury in the lower court erred in its use jury instructions. The instructions stated copyright does not protect elements like “chromatic scales, arpeggios or short sequences of three notes.” Essentially you cannot copyright individual elements of a song. Although this is true, the Copyright Act does generally allow for the protection of a “selection and arrangement of unprotectable musical elements.” This basically means protection is available for the combination of elements used to make a song.

The Ninth Circuit also noted the jury could listen to the songs at issue. The lower court misinterpreted the Copyright Act to only allow the jury to review sheet music. The Ninth Circuit clarified, essentially stating that because Led Zeppelin likely stole the song through listening to Randy California play, the jury could listen to the songs as well.

Ultimately, the ninth circuit remanded the case back to the lower court to fix these errors through a retrial.

Rock and roll legend provides lessons for all: Copyright takeaway

Intellectual property law is a very niche area in the legal world. This case highlights the complexity of one specific element of one specific law within this field. Entrepreneurs and visionaries have the right to protect their works. However, it is often wise to leave the navigation of the legal intricacies like those noted above to legal professionals. If you believe your work was illegally copied, contact an attorney to discuss your options.