🎸 Stairway to a new precedent

Go ahead and listen to the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” without guilt. The Ninth Circuit Court, whose free-spirited judges are the law equivalent of Jimmy Page, ruled that Led Zeppelin did not infringe on the copyright of a song by the band Spirit. 

  • The case started in 2014: Out of nowhere, a trustee for a member of Spirit sued Led Zeppelin, claiming the opening of the 1971 song “Stairway to Heaven” was identical to a part of Spirit’s obscure 1968 song “Taurus” (you can listen to them here).  

  • Led Zeppelin won at the trial level: Then the Ninth Circuit heard the appeal in 2018, overturning the ruling because of judge error. It reheard the case en banc this month.  

  • Things weren’t looking good for Jimmy Page and co.: A slew of cases, most prominently regarding Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” had been decided in favor of plaintiffs alleging copyright infringement. 

The New Precedent

The Ninth Circuit made a surprising decision by throwing out what’s known as the inverse ratio rule. It stipulates that the more access the accused band has to the song they allegedly stole, the fewer similarities between the songs needed to prove infringement. Because Spirit toured with Led Zeppelin in the late 1960s, this rule could have benefitted Spirit’s claim.   

  • Why was it thrown out? In part because we now live in the Spotify era. Access to almost any recording is essentially infinite. 

The Verdict 

The decision could have an outsized effect on the music industry because the Ninth Circuit, given its California location, hears a large number of industry cases. As one copyright attorney told the Wall Street Journal, cases alleging infringement over select portions of a song are going to be much harder to win.