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Ninth Circuit Affirms Non-Infringement Judgment for Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven - Intellectual Property News

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Intellectual Property News

Posted on: May 7, 2020

By Matthew J. Clark, Frost Brown Todd LLC

After years of litigation, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s entry of judgment in favor of Led Zeppelin—a jury finding that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” did not infringe Randy Wolfe’s song “Taurus” performed by the band Spirit. In May 2014, Randy Wolfe’s estate sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement alleging the opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” infringed an eight measure passage from Wolfe’s song “Taurus.”

After a five day trial in 2016, the jury found that although Led Zeppelin had access to “Taurus,” the two songs were not substantially similar under the Ninth Circuit’s extrinsic test—an objective comparison between two works of specific protectable expressions. On March 9, 2020, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the judgment finding the district court did not make alleged errors as to evidence and jury instructions. Importantly, the Ninth Circuit affirmed that the one-page deposit copy defined the scope of the copyright for “Taurus” because the 1909 Copyright Act did not offer protection for sound recordings. Accordingly, the district court did not error in preventing the sound recordings of “Taurus” to be played for the jury on the issue of substantial similarity.

Additionally, the Ninth Circuit joined the majority of other circuits in rejecting the inverse ratio rule—a rule that essentially states the stronger the evidence of access, the less evidence is needed to show substantial similarity—and overruled its precedent to the contrary. The Ninth Circuit found the inverse ratio rule illogical, that it could favor works that were more well-known, and its application was often inconsistent. Therefore, the Ninth Circuit found the district court did not error in declining to give a jury instruction on the inverse ratio rule. Click here to read the Ninth Circuit decision.

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