Stairway to Heaven just got some more rungs; Led Zeppelin copyright case to go back to court

Written by Margaret Briffa | October 3, 2018


Led Zepplin copyright case to go back to court

1971 was an important year in my life. For one, it was the year I became conscious of the world of Rock. Looking back to that time I had no idea about quite how special the year would be. It turned out to be the year that many of the most legendary bands and artists in rock including The Stones, T Rex, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin released some of their best work. I had mixed feeling therefore when I read that the litigation over Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, was going back to court. Lawsuits over copyright do take the shine off things.

Two years ago a jury in Los Angeles had found that Led Zeppelin had not copied a riff from the song Tauris by the band Spirit. Now a US appeals court has found the original ruling to be defective as the lower court judge gave the jury incorrect instructions about what did and did not constitute copyright infringement. Specifically, the judge had failed to advise jurors that while individual elements of a song such as its notes or scale may not qualify for copyright protection, a combination of those elements may if it is sufficiently original. Lawyers arguing for the appeal managed to persuade the appeal court that the error was not trivial but actually undermined the vital issue to be considered in the case, that is whether the copying of a chromatic scale that has been used in an original matter an amount to copyright infringement.

While trial by jury has many plus points in any democracy, this case highlights the hazards of a jury trial where the subject matter is one of the finer points of intellectual property. In the UK matters of this kind are settled by specialist judges, most of whom will have spent a lifetime practising intellectual property law and who are able to grasp the issues without directions from barrister appearing in front of them. The misdirection of the jury which occurred here has resulted in a rehearing of the whole matter with a new jury. It is unfortunate that until we hear the verdict of the new jury there remains uncertainty over the rights and a new trial means increased costs for the parties. As a mere observer, I await the decision with great interest. Stay tuned to this blog for updates as and when we get them.

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