Was the classic opening riff to Led Zeppelin’s 1971 monster hit “Stairway to Heaven” actually ripped off from the 1968 song “Taurus” by the band Spirit? That question was before a jury in 2016 and was recently on appeal before the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
A majority of the 11-judge panel upheld a trial court ruling that songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did not violate Spirit’s copyright. Moreover, the court overturned a previous appellate ruling that the jury should have been given the chance to listen to recordings of the two songs. Instead, only the sheet-music transcripts filed with the U.S. Copyright Office were compared.
Basically, the jury was asked to rule on two critical questions:
- Did Led Zeppelin have access to “Taurus” before it wrote “Stairway to Heaven”?
- If so, were the two guitar riffs substantially similar?
The jury did find that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did have access to “Taurus” before they wrote “Stairway.” In fact, Jimmy Page admitted as much in his testimony. However, it did not find that the two songs’ crucial elements were similar, based on the sheet music.
The attorney representing the estate of Randy Wolfe, who wrote “Taurus” called it “ridiculous” that the jury was never allowed to hear the two pieces of music and suggested that the case’s outcome would likely have been different if they had been.
“It’s frustrating when justice is the search for the truth and the truth escapes us,” he told reporters.
9th Circuit overrules its own precedent
One interesting aspect of this ruling was that it broke with a previous precedent on the question of jury instructions. In the past, juries had been instructed to use a rule called the “inverse ratio” rule. That essentially meant that the standard for finding two works to be substantially similar goes down to the extent that the plaintiff can prove the challenged artists had access to the original work.
The trial judge had not instructed the jury about the “inverse ratio” rule, and that was one of the grounds for appeal by the estate of Randy Wolfe.
However, the 9th Circuit rejected the “inverse ratio” rule, holding that the trial court had not erred in failing to make the instruction.
The Wolfe estate could appeal this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.