Led Zeppelin’s iconic rock anthem Stairway to Heaven barely needs an introduction. Released in late 1971, it was composed by guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant. It’s been referred to as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
In 2016 after a five-day trial, an LA Federal Court jury found in Led Zeppelin’s favour after they were accused of stealing a riff from the relatively obscure song Taurus by the band Spirit which was written four years prior to Stairway to Heaven. That claim was brought by a trustee for the estate of the late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe. At trial the jurors were told they could only listen to experts’ renditions of the sheet music for Taurus, not the recorded version of the song as performed by Spirit.
This decision has been reversed after a three-judge panel of the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco held that the LA Federal Court judge provided erroneous jury instructions that misled jurors about copyright law. The Ninth Circuit panel said, amongst other things, the jury should have been allowed to hear a recording of the actual song, rather than renditions of the sheet music. They said that the Judge had 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 sufficiently original.
The case has been sent back to the Federal Court for another trial.