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Appeals court in Led Zeppelin IP case: lower tribunal got it wrong

You’ve heard the song. Everybody’s heard the song.

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is akin to an Exhibit 1 offering as to what defines a classic song in the rock genre. Stairway is instantly recognizable to scores of millions of listeners from its very first notes.

And, says the trustee for the estate of deceased rock pioneer Randy Craig Wolfe (known in the entertainment world as Randy California, leader of the one-time band Spirit), Zep ripped it off.

Michael Skidmore sued on behalf of the estate back in 2014, alleging copyright infringement. The estate lost its battle, with a federal jury finding insufficient evidence to indicate a substantial similarity between Stairway and Spirit’s “Taurus.”

Let’s replay that litigation one more time, stated a federal appellate panel recently. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that the trial judge applied the wrong copyright standard in the 2014 case and supplied the jury with improper instructions. As a result, the verdict was tainted, with a new trial being required.

What the appellate panel took issue with was an instruction that it says too narrowly stressed the elements meriting protection. The jury found that Stairway’s sheet music did not infringe that of the Taurus composition, but the circuit court stated last week that broader “extrinsic similarity” should also have been considered. The lower court should have made clear that “an arrangement of otherwise unprotectable elements in a song can be sufficiently original to merit copyright protection.”

So, it’s back to court for Stairway, with the appeals case scheduled to begin next month.

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