9th Circuit Rules Led Zeppelin did Not Steal “Stairway to Heaven” Riff | Blum Law Firm | Litigation Law Firm | New York | Los Angeles
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9th Circuit Rules Led Zeppelin did Not Steal “Stairway to Heaven” Riff

12 Mar 9th Circuit Rules Led Zeppelin did Not Steal “Stairway to Heaven” Riff

In March, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers California) made an important ruling concerning copyright violations in the music industry. The case involved a copyright claim brought against British rock band Led Zeppelin and its individual band members by the Trustee for the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust. Randy Wolfe of the Los Angeles-based band “Spirit” wrote a song called “Taurus,” and claimed, in the lawsuit, that Led Zeppelin stole portions of “Taurus” to use in its hit song “Stairway to Heaven.”

While the jury originally ruled for Zeppelin in deciding that the songs were not substantially similar enough to find any unlawful appropriation, the 9th Circuit initially threw out the verdict, finding that the trial judge provided the jury with faulty instructions because he failed to instruct the jury on a legal rule known as the “inverse ratio rule,” which dictates that the stronger the evidence indicating that the artist accused of copyright violations had access to the accusing artist’s work, the less compelling the evidence of similarities between the two works needs to be in order to prove that there has been a copyright violation. In other words, “a lower standard of proof of substantial similarity [is required] when a high degree of access is shown.”

Copyright Claims Involving Musical Works

When it comes to copyright claims involving sound recordings, the courts first have to decide which Copyright Act applies in the case based upon when the musical composition was registered. In this case, the composition was registered in 1967, therefore, it was the 1909 Copyright Act versus the 1976 Copyright Act that controlled the court’s analysis.

Proof of copyright infringement in these types of cases requires plaintiffs to prove that they owned a valid copyright in the work they are claiming was stolen and that the defendant copied protected aspects of the work via copying and unlawful appropriation, where any similarities between the two works are are substantial and are not due to a mere coincidence or a common source. It is also worth noting that unreasonable delay in making a claim is not a defense where the claim is that copyright infringement has been ongoing.

9th Circuit Abrogates Inverse Ratio Rule

The 9th Circuit reconsidered the decision and reinstated the original verdict, throwing out the inverse ratio rule altogether due to how things have changed in our modern “interconnected world” in terms of access provided by services such as Spotify and YouTube. In other words, the court found that the rule arguably does not make sense anymore given that most everyone has access to musical works in various ways. The court also noted that most of the other federal appeals courts had declined to adopt the rule and the judge did not err in failing to instruct the jury on it.

Contact Experienced California Copyright Litigation Attorneys With Any Questions

The Blum Law Firm has represented a number of high powered parties in copyright infringement lawsuits, including those involving musical works. To learn more about our legal services, contact us today at (310) 620-7172 or info@blumlaw.co.