Led Zeppelin Wins Copyright Case Over Stairway To Heaven

from the copyright-law-is-random dept

Back in April, we talked about the fact that the lawsuit against Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page for copyright infringement over “Stairway to Heaven” was moving forward to a jury trail, and how ridiculous it was. As we noted, the song was written in 1970, and it’s a bit crazy to argue after all these decades that there’s infringement. But, more importantly, the similarities between Stairway and the Spirit song “Taurus” were just a few common notes that were predated by many artists, including Bach’s Bouree in E Minor. Still, as we’d seen with the Blurred Lines case, when copyright cases go to juries over song similarities, they often turn out wacky. The intricacies of copyright law are tossed out the window and often “hey, these sound similar” seems to win out.

So it’s fairly surprising, honestly, that the jury unanimously sided with Led Zeppelin in this case, saying that while the copyright on Taurus was valid and they believed that Plant and Page had likely heard the song (the two bands toured together, even though Jimmy Page testified that he didn’t believe he’d ever heard “Taurus”), there was not substantial similarity between the two songs.

Again, this is pretty surprising, because if you take an unsophisticated audience and just play the clips of the two tracks next to each other, it’s not hard to hear them and say “sure, those are kinda similar.” About the best explanation I’ve seen for why the jury decided this way in this case, was that the jury just liked Page and Plant more than the plaintiff — Michael Skidmore — who was the “trustee” of the estate of Randy Wolfe, the deceased musician who wrote Taurus. But, when copyright decisions are being made based on who’s more likable, that doesn’t sound like a particularly functional copyright system.

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Comments on “Led Zeppelin Wins Copyright Case Over Stairway To Heaven”

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coward (anon) says:

Because Zeppelin rules

I suspect that the reason Zeppelin won is two fold. First, the Randy never sued, but his family did almost as soon as he died, the plaintiffs appear to be looking for a quick payday. Secondly, its Led Zeppelin vs Spirit, who are they (I know the band’s name from my youth but can’t think of a single song they did, certainly not Taurus). Its motherf*ing Led Zeppelin and Stairway to Heaven, of course they wouldn’t steal from some band I’ve never heard of. Also, juries do notice when the plaintiff’s attorney is castigated multiple times by the judge; it makes it look like the attorney is trying to pull a fast one.

At least it is a win for music in general. All music, especially blues, is based on previous music. There are a limited number of notes, a limited number of chords that sound good, and limited ways to combine them. If Taurus was about a woman who was climbing a staircase, maybe there would have been a case.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Decisions based on which side is more likable

That should be an indictment of the jury system as a whole. Perhaps humans are too stupid (read: cognitively biased) to be used as a basis for justice.

There is an awful lot of hatred for people based on incidental or aesthetic traits (e.g. attractiveness, race, religion, etc).

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Decisions based on which side is more likable

“Perhaps humans are too stupid”

Perhaps, but from what I’ve seen it looks like the problem with juries isn’t the level of intelligence of humans generally, but that attorneys tend to try to keep thoughtful, intelligent people off of juries, and that juries are subjected to shameless manipulation.

Anonymous Coward says:

There’s little question that Led Zeppelin has a history of behaving badly with respect to playing covers of songs and giving themselves the credit for their creation (or simply failing to credit the original artist).

In this case, there’s absolutely no question that they took the original song Taurus for the opening guitar in Stairway to Heaven (and then tweaked the notes enough to get away with it). As much as their behavior is in poor taste, opening notes aren’t exactly the same, and the rest of Stairway to Heaven is still transformative enough that, as much as it was poor form of them not to even credit them (something like “inspired by Taurus” or “based on Taurus”), the song is clearly something very different than Taurus, so this verdict is to be expected.

GMacGuffin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…there’s absolutely no question that they took the original song Taurus for the opening guitar in Stairway to Heaven…

Dude, it’s a chromatic walkdown, the other strings picked in such a way that one might pick them if there are where they are on a standard-tuning guitar, which they are. There are only 11 notes in Western music, and this is four of them, in order, downward. Yet, still picked differently by Zep than in Taurus. Not to mention that the riff doesn’t appear in Taurus until after 45 seconds of mindnumbingly dull strings (I’m surprised anyone ever made it to the riff).

So I don’t this is the circumstance to speak in absolutes .

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You might want to re-evaluate!
This argument is getting so old.
As others have noted (ha!) – it’s a common chord progession that both ultimately used as inspiration.

But as LeVar would say… “Don’t take my word for it”


Anonymous Coward says:

i read a while back that in an interview johnny cash once listed songwriters he liked to listen to when he was in a songwriting mood. dylan has said something similar.

probably the history of music is largely that of following inspiration in one’s own way.

my career has been to design aircraft parts and assemblies. i’m thankful nobody ever once suggested i couldn’t or shouldn’t look at what someone else did in a similar circumstance. it’s how we do things. i don’t think i ever quite copied something. always there are complications. but the people before us patted down the grass for us to pass through. same with art. same with music. same with life.

GMacGuffin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

For about 30 years now I have been rewriting “Does Everyone Stare” by The Police. As a result of my attempts to “write a song like that” I have written maybe a dozen different songs that sound nothing like their song. It’s got stuff I like, I go about trying to emulate it, and get something entirely new. That’s how it works for lots of folk.

Anonymous Coward says:

Somewhere on the internet I came across the claim that the jury wasn’t allowed to actually listen to the two songs, but instead had to determine infringement based on the sheet music. I can’t find any confirmation for that claim anywhere in my cursory searches; can anyone verify or debunk that claim?

It’s already ludicrous to assume twelve average people would be qualified to parse by ear distinctions better left to people with a knowledge of music theory and a firm grasp on the differences between scales, diatonic chord progressions, melodies, harmonies, etc, but it seems absolutely insane to expect the jury to render a verdict by reading sheet music. Most musicians can’t even read fucking sheet music, for crying out loud.

And the amount of trickery there could get diabolical. I can notate a piece of music on a treble G clef, then rewrite it exactly the same except on a bass F or C clef and probably dupe a non-musician, or even an untrained musician, into believing that I’m showing them music for two completely different songs. Or, since “Stairway” is in the key of A minor (I believe, from memory), I could write it on a staff for Bb major and use natural notations (a symbol on the staff that informs the musician when notes are going to be out of the established scale) to keep it in the correct key of A minor.

Granted, the sheet music in any of these alternate situations would be an absolute mess, and clear communication is the point of sheet music, so no one would ever write music in these ways. But, these convoluted ways of notating the intervals between notes would still be technically “correct.” The best kind of correct.

N.B. I am happy this case went the way it did, and this is a fair verdict in my opinion, but I was stunned to hear the claim that laypeople were making this call by reading sheet music they would have little understanding of.

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

About the best explanation I’ve seen for why the jury decided this way in this case, was that the jury just liked Page and Plant more than the plaintiff — Michael Skidmore — who was the “trustee” of the estate of Randy Wolfe, the deceased musician who wrote Taurus. But, when copyright decisions are being made based on who’s more likable, that doesn’t sound like a particularly functional copyright system.

If I were on a jury, asked to decide a case like this, I wouldn’t vote on likeability, but I would certainly be biased against the trustee on general principle. The guy who contributed to our culture is gone; go out and do something worthwhile yourself if you want to be rewarded for it!

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