Classic Copyright Cases – Stairway to Heaven
I write with some fantastic news this week.
You may be familiar with the Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven dispute which has been going on for longer than I care to remember. In case you don’t already know, all the way back in 2014 the rock band Spirit took legal action against the UK legends, claiming that the guitar introduction to Stairway to Heaven infringed their copyright in respect of their 1968 song Taurus.
Have a listen to both tracks – there are definitely some similarities, which was complicated by the fact that the bands toured together. However, is it really enough to constitute copying?
A jury ruled in Led Zeppelin’s favour back in 2016 but the case was revived in 2018 by a three-judge panel which ordered a new trial. They ruled that the trial judge had given the jury incorrect instructions. Led Zeppelin appealed that decision and asked for a larger panel of judges to hear the new trial. A panel of 11 judges then stepped up to the plate in September 2019.
During the trial, Spirit’s lawyers asked to play the sound recordings of Taurus and Stairway to Heaven for the jury. However, the trial judge declined on the basis that Taurus is covered under the Copyright Act 1909 which only protects sheet music. The appeal panel subsequently affirmed the trial judge’s decision. I do wonder what would have happened if the jury was allowed to hear both sound recordings but fortunately for Led Zeppelin this was not the case.
In its appeal, Spirit also alleged that the trial judge had erred by not instructing the jury to use the “inverse ratio rule”, which lowers the standard of proof in copyright cases if it can be established that the infringing party had a high degree of access to a plaintiff’s work. Again, the appeal panel affirmed the trial judge’s decision not to instruct the jury to use the inverse ratio rule.
As far as I am concerned the judgment is a massive win for the music industry which in recent years has seen some very questionable rulings. Fingers crossed this judgment will set a precedent of artistic expression over compensation.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a copyright infringement action or think someone else has copied your work, or even if you just want advice regarding ownership of material and contracts/licenses, here at Briffa our specialist solicitors are always on hand to help. Please do not hesitate to contact us at [email protected] or on 020 72886003 for a free consultation.
Written by Alex Fewtrell, Solicitor