For the past few years songwriters have been under siege in the courtroom when it comes to plagiarism cases. Starting with the Robin Thicke/Marvin Gaye “Blurred Lines” lawsuit to the most recent Katy Perry “Dark Horse” case, songwriters and publishers have been incredulous of the outcomes. It seems like the feel of the song has more to do with the actual verdict than the melody these days. The Led Zeppelin/Randy California “Stairway To Heaven” lawsuit might finally bring some reasonableness back into copyright, and it’s all thanks to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
A few weeks ago the DOJ does something that it rarely does – weigh in on a copyright case. The Department filed an an amicus brief (Friend of the Court document) stating that “the allegedly infringing work is not virtually identical.”
The lawsuit is based around the estate of Randy California (Randy Wolfe) of the band Spirit alleging that Led Zeppelin stole the the song “Stairway To Heaven” from Wolfe’s song “Taurus.” Spirit and Zeppelin shared a bill on the English band’s first tour.
Although there are similarities in the chord pattern of the intros, the actually song melodies are different, which the DOJ believes enough to put it in writing and submit it to the court.
Songwriters Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were cleared of any wrongdoing by the court in a 2016 judgement, but the estate has appealed the decision and the Appeals Court has agreed to take the case on.
The DOJ brief filed last week states that “the copy of the work deposited with the Copyright Office defines the scope of the copyright” and that “the district court’s judgment in favor of defendants should be affirmed because the relevant portion of the copyrighted work is entitled, at most, to a thin copyright, and the allegedly infringing work is not virtually identical”
Let’s hope that the court finds in favor of Zeppelin and return some sense into this process.