Nearly 50 years after “Stairway to Heaven” became a staple for the rock band Led Zeppelin, a recent intellectual property battle over its origins ended. Texas residents may have heard that members of former U.S. rock band Spirit accused Led Zeppelin of pinching the iconic opening guitar riff from one of that band’s recorded works entitled “Taurus” and using it in “Stairway to Heaven.” The song has since become an all-time rock classic and a signature tune for Led Zeppelin, which is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Supreme Court refuses to hear appeal
Led Zeppelin initially won the federal intellectual property case in 2016. Plaintiffs claimed that a member of Led Zeppelin saw Spirit play “Taurus” at a club in the UK in 1970. The plaintiff said Led Zeppelin used the same guitar riff a year later for opening on “Stairway to Heaven.” None of the defendant band members recalled the show or song in question.
Access to song insufficient to win case
Plaintiffs argued that Led Zeppelin members clearly had access to the song claimed in the copyright case. Expert musicologists testified that both songs shared a commonly used pattern of descending notes already known for centuries among English musical society. The jury in the federal court case ultimately agreed that the two songs are “not intrinsically similar” and found in Led Zeppelin’s favor. Plaintiffs sought $3.4 million in damages.
Appeal based on errors
The plaintiffs appealed the jury finding, which never had the chance to hear the song “Taurus.” The appeal claimed procedural errors, but the 9th Circuit upheld the lower court’s verdict and said the case did not warrant a second trial based on procedural errors. The plaintiffs in 2018 appealed to the Supreme Court, but the court recently refused to hear the case.
Now effectively ended, the matter fully illustrates that potential dangers facing intellectual property can rise even decades after initial production. An experienced Houston-area intellectual property attorney may help to sort out the facts and help clients better understand how to proceed.