Spirit v. Led Zeppelin: “Stairway To Heaven” Infringement Lawsuit

There were many issues surrounding the Spirit lawsuit against Led Zeppelin and we will try to break down those issues in this post. Spirit claimed that Led Zeppelin infringed on its copyright with the iconic guitar arpeggio opening of “Stairway to Heaven.” Spirit believes their instrumental track “Taurus” is very similar to Led Zeppelin’s track. In order to better understand the case, let us first take a look at the issues that may come forth at trail.

Statute of Limitations

Led Zeppelin released their song about 43 years ago. The US Copyright Act says action must be “commenced within three years after the claim accrued.” This means Spirit would not be able to recover for any alleged infringement during the first 40 years of the song’s release. Recovery of new formats or new releases of the song would also be limited. Since the song has historically performed well, Spirit may still be able to recover a large amount of money. However, Spirit is concerned with more than just money. The band is also seeking an injunction to prohibit a new Led Zeppelin’s album by Jimmy Page.

Copyright Infringement

Many listeners are conflicted on whether Led Zeppelin copied Spirit’s song or whether the two bands just used the same instruments. To determine whether or not actual infringement took place, it is necessary to look at the court’s two-prong test:

  1. Copying of a prior work; and
  2. A substantial similarity to the prior work sufficient to constitute improper appropriation.

(1) Copying

This first element can be proven by either direct or circumstantial evidence. The more access a party had to prior work, the easier it becomes to prove similarity. In this case, proving access will not be a problem because Led Zeppelin and Spirit performed together the day after Christmas 1968 and many times in 1969. Spirit played “Taurus” at many of these concerts and music festivals. Since there is evidence of both access and similarity in this case, it must now be determined whether the second element is met.

(2) Substantial Similarity

In addition to proof of copying, there must also be a substantial similarity to the work. Substantial is defined as “qualitatively or quantitatively” and similarity means “similar in the ears of the ordinary member of the intended audience.” If the case reaches the trial court, both parties will present expert witnesses to show the similarities and dissimilarities between the two songs. Ordinary members of the listening audience may also be called upon to give their opinion.

Possible Affirmative Defenses by Led Zeppelin

  • The chord progression in “Taurus” is not original.
  • The chord progression in “Taurus” is not protectable under copyright law.
  • “Stairway to Heaven” was independently developed by Led Zeppelin without referenced to “Taurus.” Any borrowing from Spirit’s song would be seem as so minor that is it disregarded by the law. This would be “de minimis use.”
  • Since only short portions of “Taurus” were used by Led Zeppelin, the recording could be covered under the “fair use” limitations. However, this may not be the best defenses since copyright owners are entitled to as sales and licenses of their work.

Likely Outcome

If the court and ordinary members of the listening audience see enough similarities in the work to fulfill the two elements of copyright infringement, Led Zeppelin will be held strictly liable. It does not matter whether or not the copying with intentional or accomplished subconsciously.

It is very unlikely this dispute will makes its way deep into the legal system. Led Zeppelin has resolved prior claims of copyright infringement brought by third parties outside of court. In the case, Led Zeppelin is most likely to conclude the dispute with a confidential settlement agreement. The agreement may involve payments to Spirit and writing credit for the song “Stairway to Heaven.” However, Jimmy Page testified on behalf of his band on June 16, 2016. The trial is heating up and may not turn out as previous copyright infringement lawsuits have worked out for Led Zeppelin the past.

Source referenced: Forbes

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