Barely a day after the plaintiff and defense rested their cases in a L.A. courtroom, the jury charged with determining whether or not Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven” illegally copied portions of an instrumental song called “Taurus” by Spirit ruled in favor of the defendants and found there was no copyright infringement. Led Zep’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page – co-writers of “Stairway” – were in the courtroom for the jury’s verdict.
Based on last year’s ruling by a different jury in L.A. that Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” infringed Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” and a ruling by a judge decades ago that George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” infringed “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons, until today we were predicting there was a decent chance that the jury would find “Stairway” infringed “Taurus”. In part this was based on an observation that in these kinds of cases juries don’t really listen to the expert witnesses but instead substitute their own “Do I think they sound alike?” standard and our sense that the defense expert in the “Stairway” case lost all credibility when he opined that “Stairway” just borrowed public domain riffs such as those found in “Michelle” by the Beatles and “Chim Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins.
However, what we didn’t know when we were predicting that the jury would find that “Stairway” infringed “Taurus” was that the judge in the “Stairway” case did NOT allow the jurors to LISTEN to the recordings of the two songs in question themselves; instead he only allowed them to hear renditions played in the court by dueling experts – (a guitar rendition of one and a piano rendition of the other) – and to compare the sheet music. Why did the judge make this ruling? Because only the sheet music for “Taurus” was submitted to the Copyright Office for copyright registration purposes.
Why is this case important?
First, it highlights the need to submit a sound recording of your song and not just the sheet music to the Copyright Office when filing a copyright application.
Second, between this decision and the court decision earlier this year NOT to award attorney’s fees to the successful plaintiff(s) in the “Blurred Lines” case because the defense was not unreasonable, we believe that going forward potential plaintiffs are going to be more careful about asserting copyright infringement claims in music cases.
Now for the fun part: for 8 minutes of fun and possibly a re-thinking of whether or not there ever really is infringement in music, I recommend this compilation – “The Best Song Rip-Off Compilation Ever” (which compares about 30 tunes): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWMdiRq0XKE