A federal district judge has put Led Zeppelin on the stairway to a jury trial, denying the legendary rock band’s motion for summary judgment on a copyright infringement claim against it over the classic tune Stairway to Heaven (a tip of the hat to Courthouse New for posting the judge’s ruling).
The trial has been scheduled for May 10, and if the trust for rocker Randy Craig Wolfe (aka Randy California), of the band Spirit, is victorious, it could force Led Zepplin to reliquinish part of the song’s profits. Those are estimated to amount to at least $562 million between royalties and record sales. The trust, as part of its lawsuit, also is seeking a songwriting credit for Wolfe.
The dispute over this song has been as long and almost as legendary as the iconic tune itself, with the court noting the controversy’s roots dating to the late Sixties. So, besides listening and comparing the two songs in videos (above), how this case finally gotten to trial?
In May, 2014, Wolfe’s trust sued the remaining Led Zeppelin members, alleging the band had copied the guitar riff in rock band Spirit’s song Taurus, recorded in 1967. Plaintiff’s expert stated, “80% of the pitches of the first eighteen notes match, along with their rhythms and metric placement.”
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin raised the defenses of abandonment, defective deposit copy, and that the action had been filed in an untimely fashion. Let’s look at how these failed to persuade U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner, who, instead, advanced the case and scheduled a trial in his court in Los Angeles.
I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit
-Wolfe in 1991 interview
The court refused to grant summary judgment on this claim, despite defendants’ noting for the court a 1991 interview in which Wolfe stated: “I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit.”
The defendants asserted that remark showed that Wolfe had abandoned his rights to Taurus. But the court found that Wolfe did not review the interview notes before the article was published. The plaintiff also said Wolfe acted inconsistently if he truly planned to abandoning his rights to the song. They produced testimony that Wolfe had wanted to sue for a long time before his death but was intimidated and deterred. They showed that he had consulted an entertainment attorney about bringing suing Led Zeppelin.
Defendant argued that the four decades, which spanned between the 1971 release of Stairway to Heaven and the 2014 lawsuit barred Plaintiff’s claim. The court disagreed, as Led Zeppelin released a remastered version of Stairway in 2014, and Plaintiff has brought suit within the three-year statute of limitations. Noting that each infringing act begins a new limitations period, the court held that laches did not bar Plaintiff’s claim.
The defendants sought to get the case tossed, arguing that Taurus’ deposit copy for copyright protection was defective because it fails to display the Library of Congress stamp. But Judge Klausner noted that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled that mistakes and omissions do not automatically invalidate a copyright without detrimental reliance or fraud. So he found no issue about a deposit copy.
Meantime, after dealing with these key issues, the judge also cut through a thicket of other claims and legal concerns. He eliminated as defendants: John Paul Jones, Super Hype Publishing, Inc. and Warner Music Group Corp. He cited another case, in finding, critically, that: “Enough similar protectable expression is here that the issue of substantial similarity” needed to be considered by a jury.
This case, with its history, has spawned a rash of commentaries and articles, including here and here and here, and here, discussing the challenges of sorting out infringement claims in as derivative a musical form as rock’n’roll. There also has been considerable legal speculation as to whether the case might be settled for nominal cash ($1) but with a costly concession of a musical credit.