After six years of litigation, Led Zeppelin has finally won. Michael Skidmore, the trustee for the estate of Spirit’s guitarist Randy Wolfe, sued in 2014, claiming that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” infringed Spirit’s copyright in its song, “Taurus.” On October 5, 2020, the Supreme Court denied Skidmore’s request for a writ of certiorari after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against him in March 2020, which now ends the litigation. The 9th Circuit reinstated the 2016 jury verdict in Led Zeppelin’s favor, and that decision now stands.
A critical issue in the case involved the differences between the 1909 and 1976 Copyright Acts. The 1909 Act protected the sheet music (the musical score), as stadium rock was not yet in existence. Imagine “We Will Rock You” played on piano and fiddle and recorded on a 78 RPM record, or played in a smoky speakeasy… but I digress. The 1976 Act added protection for sound recordings, but didn’t apply to the case, since the copyright was registered in 1967. The issue was therefore whether the chord progression could be protected. Led Zeppelin argued that the same progression had been used in music for 300 years, including in the song “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from Disney’s “Mary Poppins.” Therefore, none of the additions of style and performance added in a sound recording were relevant.
The second issue involved the 9th Circuit reversing its own precedent involving the “inverse ratio rule”. For 40 years, the court had used this test, which requires a lower standard of proof of substantial similarity in situations where the defendant had ample access to the plaintiff’s work. This had shifted the burden of proof decidedly to defendants, in some cases unfairly, and the rule was applied inconsistently among the various Federal circuits and within the 9th Circuit. Even though Jimmy Paige of Led Zeppelin had listened to “Taurus”, he had never mentioned Spirit to bandmate Robert Plant. The 9th Circuit determined that the “inverse ratio rule” had outlived its usefulness.
This infringement case was different from some other recent copyright infringement cases (such as the “Blurred Lines” case, in which Marvin Gaye’s family won an infringement suit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams because the bass line and other elements in both songs were substantially similar), in large part because it focused only on the sheet music at issue. It is unlikely that it will apply to most cases, due to the decades that have now passed, and the current three-year statute of limitations for copyright cases.
Though this litigation has ended, it is inevitable that new and creative litigation will arise. For a deep dive into why this is happening, watch Rick Beato’s video “The Four Chords That Killed Pop Music!”
If you have questions about copyright, feel free to contact us to prevent any “Blurred Lines”…
— Joshua D. Waterston, Esq.