This past week, the Supreme Court put to bed a long-running copyright infringement case involving Led Zeppelin, one of the best-selling bands of all time, and its 1971 mega-hit, “Stairway to Heaven.” In 2014, the band was sued by the estate of Randy California, frontman of the rock band Spirit, for allegedly copying their 1968 song, “Taurus,” particularly in Stairway to Heaven’s opening chords and descending bass line. During the 2016 trial, Led Zeppelin’s singer, Robert Plant, and guitarist, Jimmy Page, both testified, with Page stating he had not heard “Taurus” until recently. The jury ruled for Led Zeppelin, stating the riff in “Taurus” was not intrinsically similar to the opening of “Stairway to Heaven.” Mr. California’s estate appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed, at which point Mr. California’s estate then petitioned to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has now declined to hear the case.
The case has come to represent hot button issues in music law, such as how old songs are covered by copyright and whether copyright can be claimed for common chord progressions and note sequences. Mr. California’s estate believes the Ninth Circuit’s decision created a larger hurdle for older musicians to claim infringement on their copyrights, because the court deemed only certain elements to be copyrightable. For music compositions created prior to 1978, only the sheet music submitted to the US Copyright Office, known as the deposit copy, is legally protected. No other version of the song is covered by copyright law, meaning the recorded version of “Taurus” is not protected against “Stairway to Heaven,” including many of its notes.
Mr. California’s lawyer claims it lost the case, because the jury was not able to hear the two songs to compare, but rather was forced to rely solely on “Taurus’” sheet music. As a result, the court agreed with Led Zeppelin’s stance that common musical structures not covered by copyright are not protected.
The Ninth Circuit’s ruling swings away from the decision in the Blurred Lines infringement case from 2015, now concluding that only a minimal amount of copyright applies to common musical elements. Mr. California’s estate believes this creates a far greater difficulty for older musicians to assert their copyrights. Unfortunately, with the Supreme Court’s denial to hear the case, the result could become the new benchmark for music copyright for the coming years.