Following their acquittal for copyright infringement in 2016, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant will have to defend themselves again from a copyright infringement case from the estate of Randy Wolfe, a member of the band Spirit. Writes Guy Martin of Forbes:
[L]ast week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned the lower court’s verdict, delineating with excruciating detail what they took to be Judge R. Gary Klausner’s mistakes and ordering new parameters for a new trial by jury. Given that ‘Stairway to Heaven’ has, itself, generated millions in royalties for the Zeppelin writers, the prospect of a new trial was greeted with jubilation in the Wolfe camp, which is to say, the lawyers for his estate, who brought the original suit in 2015.
The three Ninth Circuit judges were not passing revisionist judgement so much directly on the Zeppelin principals as ‘plagiarists’ so much as they were calling to account the – as they perceived them – failures of due process they found in the performance of their lower-court colleague, Judge Klausner. Klausner had incorrectly informed jurors that short three-note sequences or chromatic scales were not protected by copyright. In fact, they are. Add to that the somewhat ominous (for Zeppelin) fact that Zeppelin had actually opened for Spirit in a series of shows early in their (Zeppelin’s) attempt to break into an American audience.
There’s more than a passing resemblance between “Taurus” and the guitar portion of “Stairway to Heaven,” (you don’t have to listen very hard for the tune to come to you at last). But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Zeppelin blatantly ripped off “Taurus,” and Wolfe’s estate is entitled to royalties.
If this is so, “Stairway” is an excellent example of follow-on innovation, where a creator takes an idea that already exists and applies it in a different way. Copyright (and intellectual property in general) is perhaps more destructive in its ability to prevent “borrowing” ideas than it is when it denies access to content that is fully copyrighted. After all, “Stairway to Heaven” is a new and innovative work.
Also worth noting: because Wolfe is dead, it’s his estate, not the artist, that will earn the royalties. There’s no evidence that Wolfe or the other members of Spirit were starving artists after Zeppelin borrowed from “Taurus.” Aside from getting the recognition that Wolfe (allegedly) deserves, this lawsuit is a case study in how copyright law enables rights holders to extract rents from creatives with no clear benefit to the production of creative works overall.