New trial ordered in ‘Stairway to Heaven’ copyright lawsuit
SAN FRANCISCO — A U.S. appeals court on Friday ordered a new trial in a lawsuit accusing Led Zeppelin of copying an obscure 1960s instrumental for the intro to its classic 1971 rock anthem “Stairway to Heaven.”
A federal court jury in Los Angeles two years ago found Led Zeppelin did not copy the famous riff from the song “Taurus” by the band Spirit. But the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the lower court judge provided erroneous jury instructions. It sent the case back to the court for another trial.
A phone message left with an attorney for Led Zeppelin, Peter Anderson, was not immediately returned.
Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the estate of late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, filed the law suit against Led Zeppelin in 2015.
Jurors returned their verdict for Led Zeppelin after a five-day trial at which band members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant testified. Page and Plant, who wrote the “Stairway” lyrics, said their creation was an original.
The jury found “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” were not substantially similar, according the 9th Circuit ruling.
But U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner failed to advise jurors that while individual elements of a song such as its notes or scale may not qualify for copyright protection, a combination of those elements may if it is sufficiently original, 9th Circuit Judge Richard Paez said.
Klausner also wrongly told jurors that copyright does not protect chromatic scales, arpeggios or short sequences of three notes, the 9th Circuit panel found.
“This error was not harmless as it undercut testimony by Skidmore’s expert that Led Zeppelin copied a chromatic scale that had been used in an original manner,” Paez said.
The panel also found another jury instruction misleading.
The trial took jurors and lucky observers who managed to pack into the courtroom on a musical journey through the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Spirit, a California psychedelic group that blended jazz and rock was achieving stardom as the hard-rocking British band was being founded.