A dispute over the songwriting credit for the iconic “Stairway to Heaven” took a surprising twist last week when a California appellate court reversed a 2016 copyright victory for Led Zeppelin and ordered a new trial. The Ninth Circuit ruling means that the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California) has a second chance to convince a jury that one of classic rock’s most recognizable guitar riffs was based on work by the largely forgotten 1960s-era performer.
In 2016, a Los Angeles jury took just 15 minutes to find that “Stairway to Heaven” was not substantially similar to “Taurus” written by Mr. Wolfe’s band Spirit. The Ninth Circuit judges found that the trial judge had failed to advise jurors that while individual elements of a song may not qualify for copyright protection, a combination of sufficiently original elements may qualify.
Copyright lawyer Amanda Greenspon of Dallas-based Munck Wilson Mandala said there’s no clear legal criteria to use in determining what is a combination of sufficiently original elements and courts have reached inconsistent conclusions. She said last week’s decision appears to reflect the sentiment behind the 2015 ruling awarding the estate of Marvin Gaye more than $7 million after a jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had copied portions of Mr. Gaye’s “Gotta Give it Up” in their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines.”
“That case has been criticized for allowing the copyright holder to protect a style as opposed to an actual composition,” she said. “That’s not the express precedent from the case which had a number of procedural issues, but it definitely resonates in the decision to remand it back to the trial court and essentially provide jury instructions that certain common elements can be protected under copyright even when they may be standard to a genre.”
Ms. Greenspon notes that copyright law offers protections against claims of infringement for certain works in books, plays and films that are common to a genre. “There is no analogous doctrine in music, but we see the same concept play out all the time,” she said. “Songs within a genre of music often share common elements. How musicians handle that is often based on the two songs’ relative commercial success. In some instances, it’s easier to acknowledge credit and not litigate.”
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