For nearly half a century, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” has touched the souls of guitar shredders across the globe. The masterpiece is regarded as the “cut that was to FM radio what The Godfather was to cinema.” Released in 1971 on Led Zeppelin IV, the eight-minute composition truly captures the psychedelic vibes of early rock and roll. Yet, in later years, the mystical tune will surface not music charts, but court dockets.
In 2014, Led Zep was sued in Los Angeles federal court by the band Spirit on claims that the acoustical opening to “Stairway” was hackneyed from Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus.” The suit quickly followed a similar claim by Marvin Gaye’s estate against artists Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. The Gaye Family alleged, and an eight-member jury later agreed, that the duo’s 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines,” was improperly drawn from Gaye’s 1977 hallmark “Got to Give It Up.” This ruling was unnerving because it essentially construed the copying of music ideas or vibes as unlawful. Under U.S. copyright law, musical works—like lyrics and arrangements—are rightly afforded copyright protections. Yet, it was not uncommon for musicians to gain influence from other artists or use similar clichéd musical progressions with fear of potential litigation. Many considered the Gaye case as having rewritten copyright infringement rules for the music industry. Luckily, the decision in Led Zep brought reassurance for some.
In deciding music infringement cases, courts assess copyright ownership and whether actual copying of the copyrighted work occurred. Typically, the question of copyright ownership is easily resolved leaving the dispute of copying most difficult to prove.
To show copying, courts consider the defendants access to the copyrighted music and whether a substantial similarity exists between the two works. Given the availability of music, even in 1971, it was inevitable that Led Zep had access to “Taurus.” Not to mention, the bands played similar venues at the time “Taurus” was released and before “Stairway” was composed. The real issue then drew upon the substantial similarity between the works.
To be clear, only sheet music was afforded federal copyright protection and not sound recordings—like falsetto voices or percussion styles— that pre-dated 1972. Because “Taurus” was released in 1968, the jury’s similarity determination with “Stairway” focused only on the bass structure in “Tauru[s’]” sheet music—a structure Led Zep argued was unoriginal and dated back over 400 years. After hearing the arrangement live from piano and guitar performances inside the courtroom, the jury found that “Stairway” was not substantially similar to “Taurus.
The Led Zep outcome is likely music to many ears. Following the Gaye case, music infringement suits increased as plaintiff-artists sought protection for the “feel” of their works. This triggered a chilling effect on musicians creativity. Yet, the Led Zep case sung a different tune, namely that copyright infringement suits in the music industry are “not going to be a dance through the rose garden.” So ramble on music fans, “[Led Zep] ain’t tellin no lie,” “Stairway to Heaven” is theirs!
Meredith Pace is a third year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, with a minor in Business Administration, from North Carolina State University.