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Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway’ Trial Reveals Further Copyright Issues

David Layde
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Stairway to heaven, one of Led Zeppelin’s most famous songs has landed them back in court again.

The iconic rockers are part of an ongoing legal dispute over the intro to 1971’s “Stairway to Heaven” and a late-’60s instrumental called “Taurus” by the band Spirit.

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After a lengthy  series of challenges and accusations which involved court testimonial appearances by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin finally won their case in 2016.

However the victory was short lived and last year a U.S. appeals court ordered a new trial challenging  specifically the copyrights of the song. The original lawsuit was filed by Michael Skidmore a trustee for the late Spirit songwriter Randy California’s estate.

Skidmore, who gave evidence at the five week trial in 2014, argued whether members of Led Zeppelin had heard “Taurus” before sessions took place for Led Zeppelin IV, raising questions over similarities between the intro’s of both songs.

The presiding judge at the time ruled that jury members would have to make their decision based on live performances of the two tracks in court, rather than recorded versions.

Up to 1978 copyright laws only applied to sheet music and songs were registered through paperwork personally deposited at federal offices in Washington, D.C.

The  so-called “deposit copies” could barely be referred to as a working manuscript and were  just handwritten documents created by a label representative who had listened to the record.

The documents included just enough detail to make an interpretation of the song, nothing more really except for a basic sketch of the melody, which might include some solos, backing vocals, charts and bass lines.

Intros like the one in “Stairway to Heaven” were not actually written down so the final track sounded nothing like the original deposit copy. This was exactly how it was when the deposit copy of “Taurus” was created and when used as a musical guide in court, it barely sounded like the Spirit song at all.

Accordingly, the jury would have found it extremely difficult to  make any connection based on the music as it was transcribed.

This is why the  judge ruled in favour of Led Zeppelin even though the jurors believed that Page and Plant had heard “Taurus” prior to creating their song, but they just couldn’t find enough musical evidence of similarities between the tunes for the case to stand up in court.

According to COS, the opposing attorney Francis Malofiy’s argument on whether “Stairway to Heaven” replicated “Taurus” as it had been submitted in paperwork to the U.S. Copyright Office affected and changed the outcome of the final verdict.

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The reason the case is in the courts again is because at the time one of Page’s answers given at the time and in hindsight might influence the court decision and possibly change how we protect older songs in the future.

It was noted that during an exchange between Malofiy and Page around the issue of song protection which included  the intro to the “Stairway to Heaven” deposit copy, Page admitted that neither the concluding solo nor the disputed intro were there. “That’s not represented in the deposit copy?” Malofiy reiterated, to which Page said, “No. You’re correct.”

The question it raises, was there actually any copyright in the first place? Because of this, Malofiy decided to appeal and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed that the matter should be looked into again.

When a further investigation was carried out at the U.S. Copyright Office, where paperwork for songs from before 1978 are  filed, a shocking discovery was found amongst the archaic card-catalogue system.

Deposit copies found documenting other famous songs did not include their full transcriptions. Many such as  the dueling guitar finale on Eagles’ “Hotel California,” or the Clarence Clemons sax solo from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” or Ray Manzarek’s rain-like turn on the Fender Rhodes from the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” were missing.

This had led to an argument as to whether the full copyright elements of the listed songs are actually protected. This forced Led Zeppelin’s attorneys to change tactics as this evidence would now put their client’s signature song at risk.

The argument now in pre-trial court filings is focusing on the missing elements of “Stairway to Heaven” not included in the deposit copy and it is this that must now be protected. However, this is a no-win situation as it would give Spirit’s “Taurus” as much protection as Led Zeppelin in the long run.

“They blew their fucking foot off,” according to Malofiy “By virtue of their stupid fucking logic, the whole thing of ‘Taurus’ is afforded protection. I can’t believe they fell into that bear trap.”

Malofiy is still pushing to play the actual recordings of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” in court and an 11-judge appeals-court panel will reconsider the case before trial which will focus exclusively on whether to broaden copyright protections.

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