Many people may remember last summer’s high-profile copyright infringement case where Marvin Gaye’s estate brought suit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell alleging their song “Blurred Lines” infringed Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” The jury in that case found in favor of the Gaye estate awarding $7.3 million in both damages and a portion of the song’s profits. Ultimately, U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt reduced the amount of damages to $3.2 million and, while he denied the injunction to have “Blurred Lines” removed from distribution, he did award the Gaye estate a 50 percent ongoing royalty rate.
This summer the latest music group to defend a song against a copyright infringement claim is Led Zeppelin and the song involved is, arguably, the group’s most well-known song, “Stairway to Heaven.” A group called Spirit claimed the intro was lifted from their 1968 song “Taurus” and filed suit in 2014 alleging copyright infringement and “falsification of rock and roll history,” the later seems to be a favorite claim of counsel as they have used it before.
There are some surprising factors in this case and the trial itself had some almost farcical moments. For example, the judge did not allow sound recordings of either song to be played at trial. Instead, the jury heard experts play live renditions from original sheet music, providing for instantly unique interpretations. This may seem strange, however, actual sound recordings made before February 15, 1972 are not protected under federal copyright laws. This means the Court needed the comparison to be between what was protected, the sheet music. Since most members of the general population need to hear music in order to accurately interpret it, the impromptu courtroom concert was necessary.
Additionally, Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant both claimed they had no recollection of ever hearing “Taurus,” a fact some may not find surprising until you learn Spirit actually toured with Led Zeppelin and Page, seemingly inexplicably, owns five Spirit albums, including their 1968 album featuring “Taurus.” Indeed, the memories of Led Zeppelin’s members during their testimony seemed spotty at best. On the stand, bassist John Paul Jones stated that he had “never gone to a rock concert other than those where I performed with Led Zeppelin” and Plant also offered odd testimony such as “I don’t have a recollection of almost anyone I’ve ever hung out with.”
The back-and-forth between counsel seemed to tend toward the dramatic and even over the top as well. At one point the judge admonished both sides’ attorneys by saying, “any other catfights or anything else?”
Despite the histrionics, Led Zeppelin prevailed in the suit. The jury found unanimously in favor of Led Zeppelin. Within 15 minutes of asking to rehear portions of both songs, the jury decided the two were not substantially similar enough to establish the basis for a claim of copyright infringement.