Led Zeppelin Copyright Case To Go Jury, But Band Will Likely Lose

Legal-claims-softwareIn the music industry’s latest round of copyright accusations, Led Zeppelin is being put on blast for allegedly stealing portions of ‘Stairway To Heaven.’ The case is set to go to court, with a grim looking outcome expected for the band.


Guest Post by Mike Masnick on Techdirt

This isn’t surprising, even if it is a bit disappointing. Led Zeppelin has long been accused of copying others songs, and there are actually a bunch of videos on YouTube detailing examples. Here’s just one:

Some of the examples do sound like pretty blatant copies, while others are, at best, homages or inspirations, rather than direct copies. Even so, it’s difficult to get too worked up about these complaints. It should be pretty clear that even where the band copied others, it did so in a different way that often got much more attention to the work than anything the original version got. Either way, there have been a few new lawsuits brought against Led Zeppelin recently, despite it being decades since the band was actually a thing. A few years ago, we wrote about folk singer Jake Holmes suing Jimmy Page for copying parts of the Led Zeppelin song “Dazed and Confused.” That case appears to have been settled out of court.

More recently, the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California), who was the guitarist for the band Spirit and wrote the song Taurus, sued the band over the song “Stairway to Heaven,” whose guitar line is obviously quite similar to Taurus. You can definitely hear the similarities, though the chord progression is pretty basic (and the two songs are not identical).

Of course, another video comparing the two notes that both songs are actually most similar to Bouree in E Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach — raising questions as to whether there’s any legitimate copyright at all here:

Either way, federal district court judge Gary Klausner rejected a variety of claims from Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and said that the case needs to go to trial in front of a jury. That’s going to make things difficult for Plant and Page. As with the Blurred Lines trial last year, you see that many people freak out when they hear two songs are pretty similar and assume that something wrong must have happened. Of course, that’s not how copyright law is supposed to work, but alas, that’s what years of the big legacy industries brainwashing the public on copyright has resulted in.

Of course, as we’ve noted in the past, tons of songs have similar chord progressions that can lead to similar sounding songs. It’s why there are multiple comedy routines pointing this out:

There’s only so much that can be done with musical chord progressions and some work really well and lead to a lot of similar sounding songs. And that’s not a bad thing. Some of them, quite likely, are inspired by others. In the Stairway to Heaven case lots of people point out that Led Zeppelin and Spirit toured together early on. So there’s a bit of “smoke” that leads people to scream fire (ignoring of course, that Bach came first). But again, does this really matter? Wolfe didn’t sue in the decades since the two songs were released. It was only many years later, after his death, that his estate suddenly decided to make a money-grab out of it.

Either way, judge Klausner thinks the songs have a similar “feel” and thus a jury should decide, quoting previous cases:

What remains is a subjective assessment of the ‘concept and feel’ of two works . . . a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury.

Thankfully, Klausner does reject comparisons between the performance style between the two songs, noting that that’s different than the composition itself (the work that is actually covered by the copyright in question). But, again, that was also true in the Blurred Lines case and the jury more or less ignored it, because the songs sounded similar. So, again, there seems to be a good chance that Plant and Page will lose this case because a jury will think the two songs sound too similar. But sounding too similar isn’t how copyright law is supposed to work.

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