‘Stair­way to Heaven’ copyright saga must face re­view by 11-judge panel

Lodi News-Sentinel - - LOCAL/NATION - By Nancy Dil­lon

Led Zep­pelin’s “Stair­way to Heaven” copyright bat­tle will get a rare en­core in the 9th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals af­ter the court muted an ear­lier rul­ing call­ing for a new trial.

In the sur­prise de­ci­sion Mon­day, the ven­er­a­ble court va­cated a Septem­ber rul­ing from one of its three-judge pan­els and said the high-pro­file case will now go be­fore 11 of its judges to de­ter­mine what should hap­pen next.

The case cen­ters on claims Zep­pelin’s 1971 megahit “Stair­way to Heaven” stole el­e­ments from the 1966 song “Tau­rus” by late Los An­ge­les gui­tar prodigy Randy Wolfe.

Both sides had asked for the larger, so-called “en banc” re­view of dif­fer­ent as­pects of the com­plex Septem­ber rul­ing from the three-judge panel.

Led Zep­pelin’s lawyers re­quested it by say­ing the 2016 ver­dict that found no wrong­do­ing or in­fringe­ment on the part of the Bri­tish band should stand.

Lawyers for Wolfe’s es­tate, mean­while, said the Septem­ber rul­ing erred in its find­ing that the “de­posit copy” sheet mu­sic for “Tau­rus,” as op­posed to sound record­ings of the song from Wolfe’s band Spirit, rep­re­sented the scope of what could be pro­tected by copyright.

In its rul­ing, the three-judge panel said the “dis­trict court cor­rectly ruled that sound record­ings of ‘Tau­rus’ as per­formed by Spirit could not be used to prove sub­stan­tial sim­i­lar­ity.” But in some­what of a split de­ci­sion, it said the judge was wrong to block record­ings of “Tau­rus” for the pur­pose of demon­strat­ing Led Zep­pelin had “ac­cess” to the song.

Fran­cis Malofiy and AJ Fluehr, the lawyers for Wolfe’s es­tate, said Mon­day they were “grat­i­fied” by the 9th Cir­cuit’s de­ci­sion, say­ing it proved “an en banc re­hear­ing of the de­posit copy is­sue is ap­pro­pri­ate.” “The is­sue has na­tional im­pli­ca­tions for artist rights and the prior rul­ing was in­cor­rect,” they said in a state­ment to the New York Daily News. “This is a big step for the cre­atives against the in­dus­try.”

They claimed the re-hear­ing will be lim­ited to their pe­ti­tion, but the court’s rul­ing was not spe­cific in that re­gard, in­stead stat­ing that the re­view re­lated to “these cases” and that the three­judge rul­ing from Septem­ber “shall not be cited as prece­dent by or to any court of the 9th Cir­cuit.”

Lawyers for Led Zep­pelin did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Michael Skidmore, the trustee of Wolfe’s es­tate, filed the un­der­ly­ing law­suit in 2014, more than a decade af­ter Wolfe died in a tragic 1997 drown­ing ac­ci­dent while sav­ing his son from a rip­tide in Hawaii.

Plant and Page both tes­ti­fied at the six-day trial in 2016 and were adamant they didn’t steal their open­ing gui­tar riff from Wolfe’s song.

“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 af­ter the ver­dict.

“We ap­pre­ci­ate our fans’ sup­port, and look for­ward to putting this le­gal mat­ter be­hind us,” they said.

Speak­ing af­ter the ver­dict, Wolfe’s sis­ters blasted the trial judge for the de­ci­sion that blocked ju­rors from lis­ten­ing to an ac­tual record­ing of Wolfe play­ing his com­po­si­tion on his gui­tar.

Ju­rors were asked to com­pare only in-court per­for­mances from mu­si­cians hired on both sides of the case, with the plain­tiff’s gui­tar ver­sion pre­dictably sound­ing more sim­i­lar to “Stair­way” than the de­fense ren­di­tion played on a pi­ano.

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