August 17, 2016

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In June, a Los Angeles jury decided that Led Zeppelin did not commit copyright infringement in its rock classic, Stairway to Heaven, considered by many to be the greatest rock song ever recorded.  The song was accused of infringing a 1967 song called Taurus by the band Spirit, which had toured with Led Zeppelin and performed Taurus several times when playing with Led Zeppelin.  Stairway to Heaven was released in 1971.

A federal district judge ruled last spring that the two songs were similar enough to make it a jury issue whether Stairway to Heaven had been copied from Taurus.  The case centered on the opening guitar arpeggio and bass line in Stairway to Heaven, which in fact was quite similar to parts of Taurus.  The jury, however, agreed with the defense that the similarity came about because the chord progression was a common one that had been around for many years and used in many other songs.  The jury concluded that the two songs were not similar enough to prove that Page and Plant had copied their epic from the Spirit piece.

One of the interesting aspects of the case is the age of the works in question – both were written nearly 50 years ago.  Randy Craig Wolfe a/k/a Randy California, the composer of Taurus, has long been dead, and obviously the statute of limitations (generally 3 years for copyright infringement) elapsed over four decades ago.  However, Led Zeppelin released a digital remaster of Stairway to Heaven more recently, and the trustee of a testamentary trust set up by Randy Craig Wolfe’s estate brought suit over the remastered recording only.

The case is also interesting in that it highlights one of the core principles of copyright law.  Copyright protects only against copying.  Independent creation is a complete defense.  Therefore, if one person independently creates a work that is much like another’s – even if the two works are identical – there has been no infringement because there was no copying.  In this case, even though parts of the two songs sounded very similar, the jury decided that Plant and Page had come up with Stairway to Heaven on their own, not by copying Taurus.

Now, if only Justin Bieber could fare as well.  On May 26, he was sued for copyright infringement by an artist known as White Hinterland in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee (the district where Nashville is located).  Wyche IP previously reported on an appellate setback that Bieber experienced in a copyright infringement case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit – that was a different lawsuit.  In the Tennessee case, the plaintiff contends that the opening vocal riff of Bieber’s smash hit Sorry, consisting of 5 notes, is strikingly similar to the opening 4-note vocal riff of Hinterland’s song, Ring the Bell.

That theory sounds, well, strikingly similar to the plaintiff’s theory in the Led Zeppelin case.  Perhaps Bieber will prevail just as Plant and Page did.  But then, Justin Bieber is no Jimmy Page or Robert Plant.  To anyone who disagrees, I have just one thing to say:

“And if you listen very hard, the truth will come to you at last.”