Copyright law favors Led Zeppelin in infringement case

Glenn W. Peterson

Even today, it would be difficult to find anyone here in California or elsewhere who has not heard the song “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. The iconic tune is usually instantly recognizable, and back in 2014, the song became the subject of a lawsuit. The question before the court was whether the famous rock and roll band violated copyright law by copying the instrumental introduction portion of the song from a song called “Taurus” by Spirit, which was another band of the same era.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, singer and guitarist for Led Zeppelin respectively, wrote “Stairway to Heaven” back in the early 1970s. The other song, “Taurus,” was written in 1968. An heir of Randy Wolfe, who was the frontman for Spirit, claimed that Plant and Page used a portion of that song to create the famous introduction to Led Zeppelin’s hit.

The case spent approximately two years in the trial court. In 2016, a jury sided with Led Zeppelin by ruling that the instrumental introduction was not copied. Unfortunately for the band, the judge ordered a new trial, finding there were errors in the original trial. The band filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which recently sided with the band by upholding the original jury verdict.

Musical works can be worth millions of dollars, and many bands rely on copyright law to protect those works. However, there can be a fine line between an original work and the infringement of someone else’s work. A case may not be as simple as making allegations and can quickly become quite complex. It would be helpful to consult with a California intellectual property attorney to assist in either filing or defending against such accusations.