The Ninth Circuit appeals court in the US has upheld the original ruling in the big Led Zeppelin song-theft case, concluding that the band’s classic ‘Stairway To Heaven’ did not infringe an earlier work called ‘Taurus’. The judgement confirms that in cases relating to pre-1976 music, the copyright in songs only extends to what was written in the sheet music registered with the US Copyright Office. It also rejects a thing called the ‘inverse ratio rule’.
Led Zeppelin, as you may remember, were sued by the estate of songwriter Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California, who had written the song ‘Taurus’ for his band Spirit.
Jeff Brown, an IP and entertainment attorney at US law firm Michael Best, tells CMU that “the appellate ruling is significant – not only for Led Zeppelin and the decades running rock debate over whether Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ opening riff copied Spirit’s song ‘Taurus’ – but for the impact this ruling will have on future copyright infringement claims involving songs and other creative works”.
As well as rejecting the inverse ratio rule which, Brown says, “had the effect of establishing a lower burden to prove infringement of a popular work”, the appeals court, he then notes, also stated that “we have never extended copyright protection to just a few notes – instead we have held that ‘a four-note sequence common in the music field’ is not the copyrightable expression of a song”. Conclusions like that, Brown adds, means “this ruling might serve to tame plaintiffs who had taken encouragement from the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision”.
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