Copyright cases have become increasingly high-profile within the
music industry, recently reaching multimillion-dollar awards.
On June 23rd, a jury ruled unanimously that the intro of
"Stairway to Heaven" does not infringe the copyright of
the 1960s psychedelic rock band Spirit's song
"Taurus," following a week-long trial in Los Angeles. The
suit was brought on behalf of the estate of Randy California,
Spirit's frontman. The estate stood to gain a share of past
revenue and future royalties from "Stairway to Heaven,"
one of Led Zeppelin's most famous songs.
One estimate pegged the publishing royalties and record sales
from "Stairway to Heaven" at $562 million since its
release. Despite this, under U.S. copyright law, California's
estate would have only been entitled to three years of revenue,
dated from the filing date of the lawsuit – millions of
dollars remained at stake.
The case turned on whether the opening of the 1971-penned
"Stairway to Heaven" sounds substantially similar to a
guitar phrase in "Taurus," written three years earlier.
Experts noted that there are some substantial similarities, namely
that both songs' passages are in the same key, have similar
phrasing, follow a similar descending chord progression, are
finger-picked along the same metre, have identical descending bass
lines and have a Renaissance/medieval tone. On the flip side, much
of "Stairway to Heaven" is entirely different from
"Taurus," and there are other prior compositions that
include similar passages.
California's estate lost on the issue of the "extrinsic
test" of similarity: whether the two musical
compositions share enough of the same elements for one song to be
judged "substantially similar" to another.
Tellingly, the eight-member jury never heard the album recording
of "Taurus" in court as it was not protected under
federal copyright law at the time, and thus not deemed relevant by
the trial judge. California's estate was restricted to using
the "Taurus" sheet music registered with the U.S.
Some have criticized the result as an unjust technicality, while
others are hailing the case as a victory for artists.
Led Zeppelin's success stands in stark contrast to the
high-profile copyright victory by Marvin Gaye's estate
involving the Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke song "Blurred
Lines," which was alleged to have copied Gaye's classic tune "Got to
Give it Up." A jury found copyright infringement and ordered Williams
and Thicke to pay the estate $7.4 million (later reduced to $5.3
million). This case was interesting given that "Blurred
Lines" was considered an homage to Gaye, and not a direct
While some worried that the decision in favour of Gaye's
estate would have a chilling effect on artists looking to reference
other musicians or eras, the ruling in favour of Led Zeppelin may
allay some of those fears.
Suing highly successful artists for copyright infringement can
be an uphill battle. For instance, in the early days of rap and
sampling, jazz flutist James Newton was unsuccessful in his
copyright infringement suit against the Beastie Boys, in which he
alleged that they inappropriately sampled his composition "Choir" for
their song "Pass the Mic." In that case, the Ninth
Circuit Court ruled that the sampling constituted trivial copying of the underlying composition,
and was thus not an infringement of Newton's work (the specific
sound recording had been licensed). The Beastie Boys had 20
attorneys defending the claim.
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