Led Zeppelin on March 9 won a case centered around whether pieces of the rock classic “Stairway to Heaven” were stolen from relatively unknown band, Spirit, whose song “Taurus” has similarities to the classic hit. Led Zeppelin had toured with Spirit early in their career as an opening act. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a previous trial court decision of no infringement.
As the Led Zeppelin case demonstrates, these cases can bubble up long after a song is written, they can be well covered in the media, they can be technical and the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff. Some cases go to jury trials, some go to judges and, in all cases, expert witnesses and specialists across the music industry will be asked and depended on for support of either side.
Days before the 9th Circuit handed down its decision regarding the rock classic, attorneys who had represented parties on both sides of the dispute discussed music copyright at the University of Colorado’s Silicon Flatirons center.
The March 5 event, “Lay Listeners, Sheet Music, & Chord Progressions: The Future of Copyright Infringement Analysis in Music,” also brought together other musical copyright lawyers, musicologists and experts who have worked on cases involving Marvin Gaye, Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams and Megan Thee Stallion.
Central aspects of the event involved the Katy Perry “Dark Horse” case and the Pharrell Williams “Blurred Lines” case. Lewis & Clark Law School professor Lydia Loren began a session focused on copyright law by discussing the burden of proof that is placed on plaintiffs in such lawsuits. What is needed for proof of copyright infringement is not labeled in the Copyright Act.
However, the Supreme Court, in the prima facie, requires two things: that a plaintiff show ownership of a valid copyright and copying of constituent elements of the work for it to be original.