"Stairway to Heaven" Holds on to Iconic Riff

August 10, 2016
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One of the most iconic rock songs of the 20th Century came under fire earlier this summer for allegations of copyright infringement. The estate of Randy Wolfe, guitarist for Spirit on the song "Taurus,"brought a copyright suit against Led Zeppelin, frontman Robert Plant, and guitarist Jimmy Page alleging infringement of a guitar riff that opens the iconic classic "Stairway to Heaven.‚¬

The jury heard testimony from Page that while he owned a copy of "Taurus,"he had never listened to the song during the time "Stairway to Heaven"was written and that he had not actually heard the song until very recently. The six-day trial ended with a jury instruction that correctly stated that while songs and riffs may be copyrighted, common musical elements such as chord progressions are not eligible for protection. This nuance in the instruction likely prompted the jury's finding that while there was a chance Plant and Page head "Taurus,"no infringement occurred because the songs were not objectively similar. Wolfe's estate filed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit on July 23rd in the wake of a claim for nearly $800,000 attorneys' fees and costs because the claims were based on songs written 45 years ago and the estate's conduct throughout the case amounted to "continued and gross misconduct.‚¬ However, this claim was denied on August 8, as the case was not "frivolous or objectively unreasonable."This was one of the first requests for fees filed after the Supreme Court ruling inKirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons Inc., which concluded that fees should be awarded to successful copyright litigants. Per the rule, the court must consider if the case was objectively reasonable and then utilize its discretion to weigh other circumstances.

The tension between common, uncopyrightable chord progressions and copyrightable expressions of these chord progressions creates a question of whether songs which are built around such common elements are sufficiently original to be copyrighted.

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