Jury Speaks: ‘Stairway’ Was Original

The trustee managing the legacy of Randy Wolfe of the 60’s band Spirit sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement in 2014 alleging that distinctive musical elements of the iconic rock song ‘Stairway To Heaven’ were copied from a Spirit song named ‘Taurus.’ The case focused on an “ethereal, distinct plucked-guitar line and melody,” as alleged in the complaint, involving a descending bass line repeated twice and separated by a short bridge, as analyzed by the court. Because the case was decided by a jury, there is no discussion in the record of the trial that explains the reasoning that produced the verdict or the evidence that convinced the jury to exonerate Led Zeppelin. However, the verdict form indicated that the jury accepted the originality of the Wolfe composition and believed that Page and Plant had heard it at least once before they came out with Stairway. What the jury rejected was the plaintiff’s allegation that the two songs were “substantially similar.”

Applying the test for copyright infringement to two musical works can be a complicated task. The law protects only those parts that are original to the song that was supposedly infringed: parts of the work that are not original with the author are nonprotectable. So in comparing the two songs, the jury is required to “filter out” the elements in the work that are not original and therefore not protected by copyright.

The “extrinsic substantial similarity test” for infringement that the court instructed the jury to apply in the ‘Stairway’ case compares “actual concrete elements” of the total sequence of the work. The jury instructions stated that Randy Wolfe’s “original expression” in ‘Taurus’ did not include “common musical elements, such as descending chromatic scales, arpeggios, or short sequences of three notes” that were part of the song. The verdict form provided to the jury asked this question: do you find that original elements of [‘Taurus’] are extrinsically substantially similar to Stairway To Heaven? The jurors unanimously answered no.

The result in this case casts further doubt on the multi-million dollar judgment awarded to the estate of Marvin Gaye by the court in California in the ‘Blurred Lines’ infringement case. That case is currently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The parties are filing their briefs at this time.

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