I came of age in the 1970s and there are few bands more emblematic of that era than Led Zeppelin. So I monitored a recent jury trial against its former band members, in Los Angeles, with more than dispassionate professional interest.
Zeppelin’s (arguably) most famous song, “Stairway to Heaven” opens with a guitar riff that many children of the 70s like me, learned to play on our acoustic guitars. I remember it pretty vividly. But I don’t remember the song, “Taurus,” released by a 1960s psychedelic band, Spirit. My interest was naturally piqued when I saw that the estate of Spirit’s lead singer, Randy Wolfe, had filed a case for copyright infringement in Los Angeles. Because no copyright was registered for “Taurus” at the time of its release, the jury didn’t listen to “Taurus” either.
It turns out “Taurus” was written three years before “Stairway to Heaven.” Based on expert testimony, the plaintiff had argued that they had met the “substantial similarity” test for several reasons. The opening of “Stairway to Heaven” isin the same key as the allegedly copied passages, it has a similar tone, use an identical descending bass line and similar phrasing, and follow a similar descending chord progression, to name a few of the claims. The jury also heard evidence that other prior songs have comparable patterns of similarity without amounting to copyright infringement.
The trial judge never allowed the jury to hear “Taurus” but instead asked them to base their decision on the sheet music that had been registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
The jury’s verdict has its critics. I would say, now that I have listened to “Taurus,” that the short riff in question has some obvious similarities to the naked ear. (You can judge for yourself on YouTube.) But copyright cases are rarely decided on any bright line that the alleged infringer has crossed. In this case, the jury did listen to Zeppelin’s rehearsal sessions and extended testimony about the composition of “Stairway to Heaven.” During the closing argument of the defense, they heard the entire song, all eight minutes of it, and reached a decision soon thereafter. The case was decided in late June.