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Led Zeppelins Stairway to Heaven – Jury to decide Copyright

Led Zeppelin will face a jury trial to decide whether the opening chords of their 1971 classic “Stairway to Heaven” was copied. The question is:

Did they nick some of the most recognisable opening notes in rock history?

U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner of the Central District of California dismissed Led Zeppelin’s motion for summary judgment, finding that lawyers for the trustee of late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe had demonstrated enough evidence to support a case that some of the notes may have been copied from the song Taurus by the band Spirit.

The song Taurus was written by Randy Wolfe some years prior to the release of Stairway to Heaven in 1971.

Generally, there is a three-year-statute of limitations on copyright cases under the U.S. Copyright Act:

“No civil action shall be maintained under the [Act] unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.” 17 U.S.C. §507(b).

Attorney representing the songwriting trust, Francis Alexander Malofiy, was able to overcome the three-year statute of limitations hurdle on copyright cases on the basis of the  “separate-accrual rule” whereby copyright owners enjoy a newly triggered three-year limitation period for each infringing act.

The copyright test is two-fold. Firstly, whether there was copying which must be established by direct or circumstantial evidence. Secondly, whether the work is substantially similar to the prior work. Substantial can be measured either qualitatively or quantitatively. Similarity means whether the songs are similar in the mind of the average reasonable member of the intended audience.

Therefore, even if a small portion of the work was copied, the band are likely to run into problems if the jury finds that it was the most memorable aspect of the work. In Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.v. Nation Enterprises, 471 U.S. 539 (1985), the United States Supreme Court determined that although the excerpts were a small portion of the memoirs concerned, they represented “the heart of the book” and the defendant’s use thereby presented “clear-cut evidence of actual damage”.

A jury trial is scheduled for next month on 10 May in Los Angeles.

W3IP.Lara.3 Lara Alexandra

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Disclaimer. The material in this post represents general information only and should not be taken to be legal advice.

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