Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin Accuser Steps Up Fight
LED ZEPPELIN #LEGAL
Michael Skidmore unsuccessfully accused Led Zeppelin of stealing the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” in 2016.
Thursday his case found its way to the 9th Circ.
Rock lore tells us that “Stairway to Heaven” started out simply in 1970 with a few notes recorded on cassette by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for the Led Zeppelin album, IV. Today, it’s being discussed in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Working from a small cottage in the Welsh mountains, Page and Plant, composed what would become a definitive collection of songs for Led Zeppelin that included chart-topping songs like, “Whole Lotta Love”, “Going to California”, and “Stairway to Heaven.”
Flash forward to today:
Michael Skidmore as Trustee for the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, unsuccessfully accused Led Zeppelin of stealing the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” in 2016. Thursday his case found its way to the Ninth Circuit, saying serious errors by a trial judge had extinguished his chances with jurors.
The opening brief to the 9th Circuit comes nine months after a federal jury denied the Appellant’s Original Claim. The allegations in the original lawsuit claim that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant plagiarized a key element of the best-selling song “Stairway to Heaven” from the 1967 instrumental ballad, “Taurus” by the band, Spirit.
The lawsuit was filed in a Philadelphia court back in 2014, the same year, Led Zeppelin released a remastered version of “Stairway to Heaven.” A year later, a change of venue was granted and the suit was moved to California (thru luck or skill) in the same court that ruled in favor of the estate of Marvin Gaye in its copyright infringement lawsuit over the 2013 hit “Blurred Lines,” by Pharrell Williams, and Robin Thicke.
On June 23, 2016, following a trial, an eight-member jury unanimously found that the similarities between the songs did not amount to copyright infringement. This verdict, of course, led to an appeal from the Plaintiff’s.
The key error, according to the Appellants, is refusing to let jurors hear the actual recorded version of “Taurus,” and instead sticking to the written version filed with the copyright office. The court did so because Skidmore did not own a copyright on the recording, but claims it gives jurors an incomplete picture. The Appellants claim that this is highly prejudicial and requires reversal.
In his appellate brief Thursday, Skidmore said the judge had also given jurors “a series of erroneous instructions on the scope of copyright protection.” As a result, jurors were told that “virtually none of the protected expression in the ‘Taurus’ was protected and could not be substantially similar to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ as a matter of law.”
The Led Zeppelin case enforces the idea that different aspects of entire songs, specifically the composition, instrumentation and final recording, are subject to analysis in a potential copyright infringement claim. The opening brief from Led Zeppelin and Warner/Chappell is due April 14.
Similarities between the “Stairway” intro and Spirit’s “Taurus” have long been recognized, but the riff in question can be traced even farther back. Provided below is a link to “Stairway to Heaven”, “Taurus”, and Guitarist Davy Graham playing “Cry Me A River”, as captured in a 1959 BBC documentary directed by Ken Russell on the rise in popularity of the guitar in Britain. You tell us, are they similar?
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