Led Zeppelin’s long battle for the copyright of “Stairway to Heaven” seems to be over. The United States Supreme Court has denied hearing the arguments, leaving a lower court ruling in effect that found no violations.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have been involved in various legal actions for six years after the estate of songwriter Randy California accused them of plagiarizing the intro to a 1968 song called “Taurus” by Spirit. This new action in March in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier jury verdict in favor of Led Zeppelin.
The Ninth Circuit ruling was important because it overturned an “inverse proportion rule” that had served as a precedent in copyright cases for more than four decades. To win a copyright infringement case, plaintiffs must show that someone had access to their client’s work and that the two items were “substantially similar.” The inverse relationship rule focused on access, holding that the more familiar the defendant was with the copyrighted work, the less similarity was required.
The Ninth Circuit noted that access has been much more widely distributed in the digital age, leaving a noticeably less burden of proof.. “It was a terrible rule,” Ed McPherson, an attorney who filed an amicus brief supporting Led Zeppelin, told Variety. “If you have a lot of access, that shouldn’t mean there should be a lesser standard to prove copyright infringement. It’s never made sense to me.”
The court explained that “we have never extended copyright protection to a few notes. Instead, we have argued that “a common four-note sequence in the musical field” is not the copyrighted expression in a song. “