Led Zeppelin Must Face a New Trial as ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Verdict Gets Tossed

Barack Obama chats with Led Zeppelin after the group received Kennedy Center Honors in 2012.
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Barack Obama chats with Led Zeppelin after the group received Kennedy Center Honors in 2012.
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Barack Obama chats with Led Zeppelin after the group received Kennedy Center Honors in 2012.

On the group’s 50th anniversary, Led Zeppelin has just received an unexpected surprise – a forced retrial.

A U.S. Court of Appeals has just forced Led Zeppelin to face a new trial over its hit song, ‘Stairway to Heaven.’

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a June 2016 jury verdict stating the group hadn’t infringed on Spirit’s 1960s song, ‘Taurus.’

According to the three-judge panel – Circuit Judges Richard A. Paez and Sandra S. Ikuta, and District Judge Eric N. Vitaliano – the lower court judge had provided the jury with the wrong instructions.

So, what’s the case all about?

Several years ago, Michael Skidmore filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin.

The trustee for the estate of Randy Wolfe – aka Randy California, the guitarist for Spirit – claimed the English rock group knowingly robbed the introduction to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ from ‘Taurus.’  Filed at the United States District Court for the Central District of California, Skidmore alleged the guitarist originally created the composition featured in Spirit’s ‘Taurus.’

After just seven days, an 8-person jury didn’t buy his argument.  Slamming the trustee, the jury argued little evidence for plagiarism existed.

Skidmore didn’t give up.  Filing an appeal at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2017, the trustee argued,

“A quick listen to the composition of ‘Taurus’ on Spirit’s first album and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ makes it quite clear that Mr. Page undoubtedly relied upon ‘Taurus’ to create the early identical introduction to ‘Stairway to Heaven’.”

According to Skidmore, the Los Angeles jury had made several substantial errors.

“The reason for the [original trial verdict] is because the lower court made several evidentiary errors and…erroneously instructed the jury on how to perform the extrinsic analysis.”

He listed two egregious errors the district court had made in its instructions to the jury.

First, Jury Instruction No. 16 claimed copyright doesn’t protect “chromatic scales, arpeggios, or short sequences of three notes.”

Second, Jury Instruction No. 20 read,

“Any elements from prior works or the public domain are not considered original parts and not protected by copyright.”

In addition, the same instruction should’ve included the following ruling from the Ninth Circuit Model Jury.

“[In] copyright law, the ‘original’ part of a work need not be new or novel.”

The three-judge panel at 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed.

Breaking down their decision, the panel claimed Jury Instruction No. 16 ignored a previous ruling on a different case.

Limited notes, wrote Judge Paez, can be protected by copyright.  Thus, the district judge’s instruction ran contrary to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ findings.

Second, Jury Instruction No. 20 had key omissions and added misleading language.

Judge Paez wrote that originality requires avoiding copying existing works.  And, an original work must be produced with “a minimal degree of creativity.”

The original part of a work doesn’t need to be new or novel, as long as it’s not copied.”

Furthermore, by adding that public domain elements such as basic musical structures aren’t copyrighted, the judge likely misled the jury.

Due to this, and other ‘deficiencies’ in the previous-dismissed case, the three-judge panel has called on a new trial.  In addition, the jury will have to listen to ‘Taurus.’

You can read the ruling below.


Featured image in the Public Domain.

3 Responses

  1. Running on spite

    Oh let it burn daddy.
    Let’s see how the industry feels getting a taste of “overzealous copyright law”

  2. Paul Lanning