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Led Zeppelin wins 'Stairway to Heaven' copyright-infringement case

Robert Plant, left, and Jimmy Page of Led

Robert Plant, left, and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin perform in 1985. The group's iconic "Stairway to Heaven" was written in 1971. Credit: AP / Amy Sancetta

The iconic rock band Led Zeppelin won a closely followed copyright-infringement case Monday when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a federal court's decision in the band's favor.

"The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied," the court said, using the legal term for a higher court review of a lower court's ruling.

The case centered on whether the 1971 song "Stairway to Heaven," written by Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, infringed on the instrumental "Taurus," written by the late Spirit frontman Randy "California" Wolfe. "Parts of 'Stairway to Heaven,' instantly recognizable to the music fans across the world, sound almost identical to significant portions of 'Taurus,' " contended the 2014 lawsuit filed by the trustee for Wolfe's estate, Michael Skidmore.

Spirit and Led Zeppelin had crossed paths, performing at the same venue at least three times between 1968 and 1970, and Led Zeppelin also performed a cover of a Spirit song, "Fresh Garbage," according to court documents. Page testified in the 2016 jury trial, which ultimately found for Led Zeppelin, that he had not heard "Taurus" until shortly before.

Skidmore filed an appeal with the federal court for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, arguing that "the lower court made several evidentiary errors and also erroneously instructed the jury" on how to analyze the two compositions. The three-judge appeals-court panel partly vacated the lower court's judgment and ordered a retrial "because of the deficiencies in the jury instructions on originality" and a related issue.

Skidmore nonetheless took issue with the ruling since it stated that the relevant copyright law, which changed in the 1970s, applied not to recorded music but to the sheet music registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. "Taurus" was registered in 1967. "Nearly every song composed from 1909 to 1978, excepting classical music, was composed on instruments, not sheet music," read the appeal to the Ninth Circuit's full 11-judge bench. Sheet music, it said, is "complete enough to identify the songs" but rarely consists "of all the notes in the musical compositions."

In a 73-page decision this March, the full bench of the appeals court concluded the original jury decision was correct. "Like the jury, we don't need to decide whether 'Stairway to Heaven' has a place in the annals of iconic rock songs," the court wrote. "Instead, we address a litany of copyright issues, including the interplay between the 1909 and 1976 Copyright Acts, the inverse ratio rule, the scope of music copyright, and the standards for infringement."

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Of particular note, the court threw out the "inverse ratio rule," long used in copyright cases, which states that the more access a defendant has had to a piece of music, the less similar the two pieces have to be in order to prove infringement. "It was a terrible rule," attorney Ed McPherson, who had filed an amicus brief in support of Led Zeppelin, told Variety in March. "If you have a lot of access, that shouldn't mean there should be a lesser standard to prove copyright infringement. It's never made sense to me."

Surviving Led Zeppelin members Page, Plant and John Paul Jones, all in their 70s, have not commented publicly on the Supreme Court's action.

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