Led Zeppelin must go back on trial in a lawsuit that accuses the classic rock grandees of stealing the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” from an obscure 1968 instrumental.
In a stunning turn-about in a challenge to the authenticity of one of rock’s most famous songs, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled Friday that a 2016 trial wasn’t fair to the group Spirit and its late guitarist, Randy California, wrote the song “Taurus.”
When the case goes to a retrial, jurors will be able to listen to the album version of “Taurus” — which was not allowed in the first trial in 2016, drawing a protest from the lawyer for California’s trust.
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant both testified at the trial two years ago in Los Angeles about the band’s formative years, its U.S. touring in the late 1960s and the genesis of “Stairway.” Music experts testified that the descending chromatic scale in “Taurus,” which the band was accused of having copied, is exceedingly common in popular music and isn’t subject to copyright protection.
The judge who presided over the 2016 trial ruled that the jury could only hear renditions of “Taurus” performed by music experts — some live in the courtroom — instead of the recorded version, because copyright protection at the time of composition only applied to the sheet music.
The attorney representing California, whose real name was Randy Wolfe, hailed Friday’s ruling as an opportunity to affirm his contribution to rock n’ roll history.
“Led Zeppelin obviously copied Taurus by Randy California, a musician they knew well in the 1960s — as well as several other songs from other musical pioneers,” Francis Malofiy said in an email. “We do not dispute that Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands in history, but their plagiarism indelibly stains their legacy.”
Warner Music Group, the publisher of Led Zeppelin’s music, declined to comment on the ruling.
While allowing a new jury to hear a recording of “Taurus” may put Led Zeppelin at a disadvantage, the context in which the recording can now be considered by jurors will be limited. The plaintiffs can play it for Page in open court to ask him if he’d ever heard the song before writing “Stairway.”
Allowing “the jury to observe Page listening to the recordings would have enabled them to evaluate his demeanor while listening to the recordings as well as when answering questions,” the three-judge appeals panel said. That line of questioning would be meant to establish whether Page had “access” to the song, an element of copyright infringement.
At the same time, the jury will still be instructed only to consider the sheet music when assessing whether the two songs are “substantially similar,” the other element of infringement, the appeals court said.
The ruling may also hurt the Led Zeppelin members’ argument that the allegedly copied music was so common as to be unprotected by copyright. The new jury instructions will say that a new arrangement of unprotected musical elements can itself be protected.
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