Stairway to Litigation: Led Zeppelin win copyright feud over one of their most iconic songs

April 16, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Rock band Led Zeppelin has won a copyright battle over the opening notes of its song Stairway to Heaven

What does this mean?

The band has been embroiled in the claim since 2014 when the lesser-known band, Spirit, brought an action claiming that the introduction to the song infringed their instrumental song “Taurus”

In coming to their decision the jury would have been asked to examine whether the two songs were substantially similar. Prior to this case, and in accordance with US copyright rules, this would have included the application of the “inverse ratio rule”.  The rule has been used in the US since 1977 and lowers the standard of proof required to find similarity when the defendant had a high degree of access to the infringed work. Despite the long history of use of the rule, the court overruled the precedent. In doing so the court found that Stairway to Heaven did not infringe Taurus.

What's the big picture effect?

In a move which could be seen to be worthy of the times, the judge considered that modern technology allowed access to a very large volume of work, and therefore the rule on access was no longer appropriate. The judge stated that they were “not suggesting that access cannot serve as circumstantial evidence of actual copying in all cases; access, however, in no way can prove substantial similarity”. If the courts are willing to follow the Led Zeppelin decision then the use of the inverse ratio rule could cease. This would likely be considered a win for the music industry because it increases the burden of proof required to find copyright infringement. This would also render US copyright law more similar to that of the UK, where access to the work is not relevant when considering similarity. 

In addition, it was reportedly feared that a ruling against Led Zeppelin would result in harmful overprotection of copyrights, which is the way that the courts seemed to be going after the decision in Blurred Lines, the song by Robin Thicke, a few years earlier.  Normally, it would need to be shown that a song had copied a series of notes such as the whole melody in order to be able to prove copyright infringement. However, the Blurred Lines case involved disputes over passages as short as four notes long, and the general vibe of the song.  Since then, many copyright claims have involved infringement over short fragments of music. This is likely why many see the Led Zeppelin decision as a rebalance of power in music copyright cases, as it means that these cases may now be easier to dismiss.

The case has shown that there is a very fine line to be walked when it comes to musical copyright, and we are likely to see many more cases on the matter yet, as the courts struggle to find a balance between what constitutes originality of a song, and what constitutes a basic building block of music which cannot be owned.

Report written by Julie Lawford

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