Rock ‘n roll heavyweights Led Zeppelin have won a copyright dispute over perhaps their most iconic single of all time, “Stairway to Heaven.” The verdict and case as a whole has set a precedent that may demonstrably alter copyright standards and requirements in future litigation over copyright disputes.
The case stems from a 2014 complaint filed by Michael Skidmore, functioning as a trustee on behalf of the late former Spirit guitarist Randy California. Skidmore claimed that the iconic guitar opening of Led Zeppelin’s 1971 megahit “Stairway to Heaven” liberally cribbed from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental track “Taurus.”
Following a five-day trial in 2016 in a Los Angeles district court, the judge in the case ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin. However, a three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later called for a retrial, finding that the judge in that case “provided erroneous jury instructions.” The panel further claimed that the judge “should have told the jury that the selection and arrangement of some musical elements can violate copyright law.”
On June 10 of last year it was decided the case would be reheard in the fall of 2019. An appellate court voted to redo the trial en banc, meaning before a wider panel of judges. That trial was pushed back to Monday, when the Ninth affirmed the initial decision of no copyright infringement.
The court handed down a 54-page decision, which may establish a new standard in copyright infringement cases moving forward. While one element that initially led to the retrial was the failure of the jury in the first trial to be allowed to hear the original “Taurus,” the Ninth ruled that was ultimately not an error.
The key element of this iteration of the case was the court ultimately overturning what’s referred to as the inverse ratio rule. The rule essentially says that the more accessible a work is, the lower the bar should be for proving similarity between it and what’s said to have copied it. Essentially, while their may be tonal similarities between “Taurus” and “Stairway,” the court ruled they aren’t similar enough to necessitate invoking this rule, and thus to an extent overturned it and established new potential precedents for copyright infringement cases.
The majority opinion on the matter concludes, “The trial and appeal process has been a long climb up the ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ The parties and their counsel have acquitted themselves well in presenting complicated questions of copyright law. We affirm the judgment that Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ did not infringe Spirit’s ‘Taurus.'”