Led Zeppelin Cleared of Plagiarism in “Stairway to Heaven” Jury Trial

As a follow up to our last blog article on the Zeppelin trial, this week the jury in Los Angeles, CA ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin that the guitar riff in its famous song “Stairway to Heaven” was not a copy of the group Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus.” The plaintiff, trustee for the late Randy Craig Wolfe of Spirit, argued that Led Zeppelin had become familiar with its song Taurus when the two bands played on the same bill in 1970 – a year before Stairway to Heaven was released.

The jury found that the two songs were not “substantially similar.” The question of substantial similarity arises only after proof of factual copying has been proven up by either (1) direct evidence of copying, or (2) circumstantial evidence demonstrated by (i) proof of access and probative similarity, or (ii) striking similarity. See General Universal Systems, 379 F.3d at 142. To “determine whether an instance of copying is legally actionable, a side-by-side comparison must be made between the original and the copy to determine whether a layman would view the two works as ‘substantially similar.’” Creations Unlimited. v. McCain, 112 F.3d at 816.

To have won its case for copyright infringement of the song Taurus, the plaintiff needed to demonstrate (1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 361 (1991). Regarding the second element, the plaintiff had to show (1) actual copying of its work by the defendant and (2) that such copying constitutes an improper appropriation of the its work.

Actual copying may be proved where (i) the defendant factually copied the protected material, and (ii) that there is a “substantial similarity” between the two works. Bridgmon v. Array Systems, 325 F.3d at 576. Factual copying may be demonstrated with evidence that (1) the defendant had access to the copyrighted work prior to creation of the allegedly infringing work, and (2) the two works are probatively similar to one another. Positive Black Talk, 394 F.3d at 368. Probative similarity “requires a showing that the works, when compared as a whole, are adequately similar to establish appropriation.” General Universal Systems v. Lee, 379 F.3d at 142.

After the verdict, a statement from Robert Plant and Jimmy Page read:

“We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origin of Stairway to Heaven and confirming what we have known for 45 years. We appreciate our fans’ support and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”

This article written by Scott Compton, J.D. www.texasinvent.com