The ongoing copyright dispute over Led Zeppelin's 1971 classic, “Stairway To Heaven” rages on with oral arguments set to begin the week of September 23rd in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal in San Francisco before an 11-judge panel.
Last September, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that the 2016 trial, which sided with the song's co-writers Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, was unfair to the group Spirit and its late-guitarist, Randy California (real name Randy Craig Wolfe) who wrote the band's song “Taurus,” which California's trust claims features “Stairway To Heaven's” signature intro chord pattern. In the new trial, the two recordings will be compared back-to-back — unlike the 2016 trial, which featured newly recorded versions of each song strictly following the officially published sheet music.
In June 2016, Plant and Page were sued by Michael Skidmore, the trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, on behalf of the late Spirit guitarist in hopes of not only winning a monetary judgment, but also securing a writing credit for California on “Stairway To Heaven.”
The Hollywood Reporter quoted Zeppelin lawyer Peter Anderson arguing: “Respectfully, the decision errs in faulting the district court for omitting a selection-and-arrangement instruction even though plaintiff objected to the district court giving it, and for instructing — correctly — that copyright does not protect public domain elements. The decision also errs because more probably than not the verdict would have been the same. The errors warrant en banc review because if left uncorrected they allow a jury to find infringement based on very different uses of public domain material and will cause widespread confusion in copyright cases in this Circuit.”
Meanwhile, Skidmore's lawyer Francis Malofiy claimed: “Nearly every song composed from 1909 to 1978, excepting classical music, was composed on instruments, not sheet music. The lead sheets submitted to the Copyright Office are complete enough to identify the songs, but almost never consist of all the notes in the musical compositions. . . There is no evidence, no statutory text, and no reason to believe that Congress ever intended that an author converting his common law copyright to a federal copyright by registration could possibly shrink/modify the scope of his already existing copyright.”
Tim English is an expert on musical plagiarism and the author of Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Stolen Melodies, Ripped-off Riffs, And The Secret History Of Rock And Roll. We asked him what he makes of the case of “Stairway” vs. “Taurus”: “I think that it's a fairly distinct similarity on the one hand; but on the other hand, 'Stairway To Heaven' goes (on) for around eight minutes. This is, at the very top, I'd say a quarter of the song that we're talking about here. So, even if we were going to say that they violated the copyright of the Spirit song 'Taurus,' in creating it, you'd still be talking about only a percentage of the total work of 'Stairway To Heaven.'”