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Spirit v. Led Zeppelin – the complexities of determining copyright infringement in the music industry

In October 2020 a case against Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, and guitarist Jimmy Page was finally defeated, after being filed in 2014, defeated in 2016, reopened on appeal, upheld and then eventually being declined by the US Supreme Court, finally ending its run. The lawsuit charged that Led Zeppelin took the opening section of one of its most iconic anthems, “Stairway to Heaven”, from the lesser-known song “Taurus”, performed by the American rock band Spirit. Michel Skidmore, representing the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe (who died in 1997), accused Led Zeppelin of the ‘falsification of Rock n’ Roll history’; a claim that was deemed to be ‘inventive, yet legally baseless’ by the court.

In rare cases, it is possible to prove that two works are strikingly similar, to the point that independent creation is precluded. Skidmore’s experts tried to show the existence of such similarity, but the court rejected this claim, declaring that the primary feature of both works is a ‘common musical structure’. As musicologist Lawrence Ferrara stated, the chord progressions in both “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” are centuries old, and have even been referred to as ‘commonplace musical devices’ by jazz theorists, and used in songs in the film “Mary Poppins”.

copyright signIn US copyright law, to be liable for direct copyright infringement without proof of striking similarity, two conditions have to be satisfied; a defendant must have had access to the plaintiff’s work and there must be substantial similarity between the infringing and the infringed work.

Similar cases have been defeated concerning Katy Perry’s hit Dark Horse, while Ed Sheeran has been accused of copying Marvin Gaye, in a long running copyright dispute. Indeed the family of the late Marvin Gaye have already received £3.9 million plus 50% of all future earnings from Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for infringing the copyright of Marvin Gaye on Blurred Lines.

While headline making music copyright spats continue to be expensive and hotly contested, there are simpler ways to prevent copycats and fakes in other sectors, by registering your Intellectual Property and using SnapDragon’s clever technology to find and remove listings that threaten your brand, revenue and reputation.

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