New trial in Stairway to Heaven case

An American appeal court has ordered a new trial in a claim in which rock band Led Zeppelin are accused of copying part of an earlier instrumental track and using it in their 1971 hit Stairway to Heaven.

The claim against Led Zeppelin was brought in 2015 by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the estate of late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe.

A jury in 2016 had already decided that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant did not copy the distinctive riff in their record from the song Taurus by Spirit, but an appeal court has now ruled that the trial judge misdirected the jury on copyright law issues which were crucial to the case.

Spirit and Led Zeppelin toured together in 1967 and 1968 and Skidmore claims that this may have been when Jimmy Page was inspired to write Stairway to Heaven.

At the original trial, both Page and Plant gave evidence, and the jury found that the two songs were not substantially similar.

The appeal court decided that the trial judge failed to direct jurors that, while individual elements of a song such as its notes or scale may not qualify for copyright protection, a combination of those elements may do so if it is sufficiently original.

The judge also wrongly directed jurors that copyright law does not provide protection for chromatic scales, arpeggios or short sequences of three notes.

The appeal court also found that jurors should have been allowed to hear the original recording of the song by Spirit.

Commentators have suggested that the ability to make a direct comparison between the two works will potentially be significant at the retrial.

Claims against high profile musicians over alleged copying from earlier works continue to proliferate in the wake of a jury’s finding in favour of Marvin Gaye’s estate in a claim against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke over similarities between their hit Blurred Lines and Gaye’s Got to Give It Up.