The original lawsuit against Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin alleged that they plagiarized the 1968 song Taurus that was written by Randy Wolfe, the guitarist for Spirit. However Randy Wolfe himself passed away in 1997 and had no hand in the lawsuit.
It was filed by journalist Michael Skidmore, who was acting on behalf of the Randy Craige Wolfe Trust of which he is a co-trustee.
In 2016 a jury ruled against the lawsuit and found that “Stairway to Heaven” did not infringe on the “Taurus” copyright. However the case was revived once again in 2018 when a three judge panel in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Judge Gary Klausner gave the jury in the 2016 trial the wrong instructions.
Following that ruling, Led Zeppelin filed an appeal and requested a larger panel of judges to hear the case. It was granted, and the appeal was heard towards the latter part of 2019 by a panel of 11 judges.
The current ruling marks a major victory for Led Zeppelin over the claims that they stole parts of “Stairway to Heaven”. Although it is not the first time the legendary rock band has had to face accusations of plagiarism, the case was extremely important due to the fact that it involved “Stairway to Heaven”, which has become the band’s signature song.
Because “Taurus” was copyrighted in 1967 it fell under the Copyright Act of 1909 which only encompassed sheet music and not sound recordings. The latter only started to be protected after 1972.
A significant part of the trial came down to the details of what parts of “Taurus” were copyrighted. Francis Malofiy the plaintiff’s lawyer held that the sheet music that was the deposit-copy was incomplete and the full composition was embodied in the album recording.
However the appellant judges rejected the claim, along with Malofiy’s other arguments that there were insufficient jury instructions. In an interview, Malofiy expressed that he was disappointed by the ruling, “The court got it wrong. Led Zeppelin can be happy they won on a technicality, but that does not mean they won on the merits.”
When asked, the lawyer said that he has yet to decide whether to appeal the case further.
Another reason the trial drew so much attention was that it followed closely on the heels of a 2015 decision where Pharrell and Robin Thicke were ordered to pay $5 million for copyright infringement. In that trial the controversial “inverse ratio rule” was used.
The inverse ratio rule has been widely-used in copyright cases throughout the music industry, and heavily criticized for making the burden of proof too low. Many artists have claimed that it favors plaintiffs heavily. From Betway Sports’s research, it has been a deciding factor in many cases.
Based on the inverse ratio rule, if one party can prove the infringing party had a high degree of access to the work then a lower standard of proof is required when deciding if the songs are similar. However the 9th Circuit noted that the concept of “access” is different now in the current digital age.
In the original opinion that the court laid out in this case it overturned the inverse ratio rule. Its summary stated that, “Although we are cautious in overruling precedent — as we should be — the constellation of problems and inconsistencies in the application of the inverse ratio rule prompts us to abrogate the rule.”
If the decision holds then the ruling is likely to have a major impact on the music industry as a whole. It will remove the use of the inverse ratio rule that has been heavily criticized as stifling to creativity.