Led Zeppelin Wins Appeal In ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Copyright Lawsuit

March 11, 2020

By: Toby M.J. Butterfield, David Rabinowitz, and Elizabeth O. Nwabueze

On March 9, 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sided with Led Zeppelin and rejected challenges to a jury verdict dismissing the copyright lawsuit over the British band’s iconic 1971 song, "Stairway to Heaven." The music recording industry, on the losing side of various copyright infringement suits since the "Blurred Lines" case in 2015, will take solace from the decision, which also stiffens the test for proving illegal similarity in copyright cases.

In 2014, the estate of Randy Wolfe, guitarist and songwriter for the band Spirit, accused Led Zeppelin of copying the iconic opening instrumental riff in "Stairway to Heaven" from Spirit's 1968 song "Taurus." In addition to copyright infringement, Wolfe’s estate inventively accused Led Zeppelin of denying him credit for the key music through "falsification of rock' n' roll history." In 2016, however, a California federal jury found no infringement.

The Ninth Circuit's recent opinion rejected plaintiff's request for a retrial.  Citing limits on the scope of Wolfe’s copyright, the appeals court rejected the argument that jurors should have been allowed to hear and consider the recorded version of "Taurus" at trial. The trial court allowed the playing of the contested musical segments at trial on guitar, but excluded the recordings of the actual songs in order to prevent the jury from making an erroneous comparison for determining substantial similarity.

The Ninth Circuit also abandoned its "inverse ratio rule," which had permitted "a lower standard of proof of substantial similarity when a high degree of access is shown." With this ruling, the Ninth Circuit joined four other appeal courts across the nation in rejecting the rule, acknowledging that proof of possible “access” via the Internet is available in almost every case, but meaningless to show copying.

Moses & Singer regularly advises clients on copyright, entertainment and media law issues, and is available to consult on the impact of these developments and other issues in copyright, entertainment, and media law. Contact David Rabinowitz on (212) 554-7815 or drabinowitz@mosessinger.com, Toby Butterfield on (212) 554-7860 or tbutterfield@MosesSinger.com, or any other member of Moses & Singer’s IP practice.