Stairway To Heaven verdict narrows the grounds for future copyright challenges

Legal experts said Thursday's unanimous verdict creates "a sharper, clearer line in terms of what is protectable and what is not in music"

Led Zeppelin prevailed on Thursday in a copyright lawsuit brought against surviving members of the British rock band, as jurors rejected a claim that the opening guitar passage from its classic hit Stairway to Heaven had been lifted from the lesser-known US band Spirit.

The jury's verdict, which found substantial differences between Stairway to Heaven and Spirit's instrumental track Taurus, followed a week-long federal court trial in Los Angeles that had called into question the originality of the 1971 song by Led Zeppelin, one of the top-selling rock acts of all time.

Legal experts said the unanimous verdict, reached on the jury's second day of deliberations, could narrow the grounds on which future copyright infringement challenges are brought in the music industry.

The jury found Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page had access to Taurus, a song written in 1967, but that the riff they were accused of stealing was not intrinsically similar to the opening chords of Stairway.

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"We are grateful for the jury's conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of Stairway to Heaven and confirming what we have known for 45 years," Page and Plant said in a joint statement.

The conclusion of the Stairway case comes just over a year after a federal jury in Los Angeles found singers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had plagiarized Motown great Marvin Gaye in creating their hit single Blurred Lines.

A jury awarded Gaye's family $7.4 million, but a judge later reduced the amount to $5.3 million. That verdict is under appeal.

While the Blurred Lines case might have bolstered hopes of other artists suing for copyright infringement, Led Zeppelin's victory may cause musicians and attorneys to think twice before heading to court, said music industry attorney William Hochberg.

"This decision created a sharper, clearer line in terms of what is protectable and what is not in music," Hochberg said.

Page, who co-wrote Stairway to Heaven with Plant and composed the guitar riff in question, testified he had not heard Taurus until recent years. He acknowledged owning a copy of Spirit's self-titled album including Taurus but did not know how he had acquired it.

Skidmore's attorney, Francis Malofiy, said after the ruling that his side was hamstrung by U.S. District Judge R Gary Klausner's order preventing jurors from listening to Spirit's recording of Taurus. Instead, jurors could only compare simple renditions of the sheet music for the two songs.

"We're taking it one step at a time ... but there's obviously issues that can be appealed," Malofiy said.

- Reuters