It’s unquestionably one of the most famous and iconic rock songs of all time. And it comes with a question: Who wrote it?
The song is Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” which has likely worn out the grooves on legions of baby boomers’ decades-old albums.
Avid listeners might want to conduct a little experiment, namely, taking a close listen to the 1968 instrumental tune entitled “Taurus” by the rock band Spirit.
Jurors will once again weigh in on the close similarity that is alleged by a trustee for the estate of Randy Wolfe, the now-deceased leader of Spirit and author of “Taurus,” which preceded “Stairway” into the rock catalogue. They will evaluate whether any detected similarity is close enough to qualify as a copyright infringement. A “yes” answer to that question could lead to significant money damages.
The case is not new. In fact, it will now proceed in step-two mode, following an initial federal court outcome that ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin. Jurors in that matter ruled against Wolfe’s estate, finding no infringement.
There was manifest error in that matter, though, ruled the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week. A three-judge panel determined that the trial judge gave improper instructions to the jury that set the bar on musical originality too high. This time around, the appellate tribunal noted, the jury should evaluate what they hear based on a legal understanding that even a relatively limited number of notes can merit protection.
A spokesperson for Wolfe’s estate unsurprisingly lauded the appellate outcome, asserting that “we didn’t have a fair fight in the first instance.”
It appears they’ll get one now.