May 29, 2020

Original or Copied? ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Is Back in Court

After his death, his song rights were placed in a trust now controlled by Michael Skidmore, a music journalist. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Mr. Skidmore considered suing but was discouraged by a longstanding statute of limitations.

In 2014, the Supreme Court offered an opening when it ruled — in a case involving the film “Raging Bull” — that copyright suits could be brought even after long delays. Two weeks after that decision, Mr. Skidmore’s lawyer, Francis Malofiy, filed suit, arguing that “Stairway to Heaven” copied “Taurus.” He also threw in the novel claim of “falsification of rock ’n’ roll history,” which was dismissed.

After recent plagiarism cases like the one centered on the 2013 hit “Blurred Lines,” in which Mr. Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay $5.3 million to the family of Marvin Gaye, many people in the music industry cheered the “Stairway to Heaven” verdict and have rallied behind Led Zeppelin.

“This is the one time that a jury gets it right,” said Edwin F. McPherson, a music industry litigator. “And the Ninth Circuit panel says, ‘No, we need to get it wrong!’”

Yet Led Zeppelin is an imperfect champion for originality in songwriting. Critics have long accused the band of brazenly borrowing from blues musicians and other artists. Over the years, Led Zeppelin has settled many infringement claims, with the results scattered on decades’ worth of changes to their song credits.

When the band’s self-titled debut came out in 1969, for example, the fine print on the label listed Mr. Page as the sole composer of the song “Dazed and Confused.” By the time that album was reissued in 2014, the credits added “Inspired by Jake Holmes,” after a singer who in 1967 had a similar song with the same title and had filed his own infringement suit.

One issue in the “Stairway to Heaven” case that has drawn contentious arguments ahead of the hearing is how much copyright protection a piece of music should get if it includes generic-seeming elements like common chord progressions but puts them together in a creative way.

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