Led Zeppelin Wins Copyright Dispute Over 'Stairway To Heaven'
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Led Zeppelin has been defending one of its biggest hits, "Stairway To Heaven," against allegations of copyright infringement for years. Well, today, a court ruled in the rock band's favor. And as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, the ruling could have wider implications for copyright law.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: What you're hearing now is the song "Taurus" by the rock band Spirit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRIT'S "TAURUS")
LIMBONG: The late guitarist Randy Wolfe, whose stage name was Randy California, wrote the song before Led Zeppelin wrote theirs. In case you haven't heard it, here's "Stairway To Heaven."
(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPELIN SONG, "STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN")
LIMBONG: Sensing a similarity, Wolfe's estate filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in 2014, looking for co-writing credits and royalties. The case went to trial two years later in front of a jury which wasn't allowed to do what we just did - listen to the songs - because "Taurus" was written before federal copyright covered recordings. So all that was argued over in court was sheet music. The 2016 trial landed in favor of Led Zeppelin. There was an appeal, which today also landed in favor of Zeppelin.
FRANCIS MALOFIY: Zeppelin wins on a technicality.
LIMBONG: That's Francis Malofiy. He's the lawyer representing the Wolfe estate. He says if the recordings were allowed to have been played in court, it would've been an open-and-shut case.
MALOFIY: And I think that's very disheartening for the creatives, and it's a big win for the multibillion-dollar music industry.
LIMBONG: Zeppelin's label, Warner Music Group, declined to comment.
BRIAN MCBREARTY: When we're trying to determine if copying has taken place, we look at two pillars of copyright infringement. The one pillar is similarity.
LIMBONG: That's forensic musicologist Brian McBrearty. He says the next pillar is access. Do we think an alleged infringer heard song A before writing song B? The two pillars, taken together, are known as the inverse ratio rule.
MCBREARTY: And the inverse ratio rule is the idea that in an infringement case, while you need to prove both of those - both similarity and access - that we might lower the threshold for one of them if we have a whole lot of the other one.
LIMBONG: The court ruled today that even though the two bands played together before Led Zeppelin recorded "Stairway To Heaven," there wasn't enough evidence for either pillar - similarity or access - to apply. But this access argument has helped win previous high-profile copyright cases against such artists as Robin Thicke and Katy Perry. McBrearty says this might have some people thinking twice about bringing lawsuits against big stars. As for the Zeppelin case, lawyer Francis Malofiy says he'll appeal.
Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPIRIT'S "TAURUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.