Hundreds Of Musicians Officially Take Led Zeppelin's Side In Copyright Case
By Andrew Magnotta @AndrewMagnotta
August 5, 2019
Hundreds of fellow musicians are sending support to one of their biggest inspirations, Led Zeppelin, in the band's ongoing defense in a copyright infringement lawsuit surrounding "Stairway to Heaven."
While Led Zeppelin won the initial case in a jury trial in 2016, the band and the plaintiff in the case — the estate of late Spirit songwriter Randy "California" Wolfe — mutually agreed to head back to court in September.
The lawyer for Wolfe's estate hopes to nail Led Zeppelin for contradictions guitarist Jimmy Page made in his initial testimony. Zeppelin is trying to set a precedent for copyright protection on music.
In an amicus brief filed on July 30, 123 fellow artists, including contemporary rockers Tool, Korn, Sean Ono Lennon and the Nashville Songwriters Association International, explained that they have "significant interest" in the case and are siding with Zeppelin.
"[We], whose music entertains and enriches the lives of countless people worldwide, will therefore undoubtedly be affected by...the outcome of this critically important case," reads the brief.
It continues, asserting that there was "no evidence presented" in the initial trial that Wolfe's song, "Taurus," was so original that its copyright claim supersedes Led Zeppelin's for the similar-sounding first verse of "Stairway to Heaven."
The brief adds that similarities between the two pieces are "random" and "commonplace elements, such as the existence of a descending chromatic scale and two-pitch sequences in different melodies..." which should not amount to an award for Wolfe's estate.
"In fact, the two songs' melodies' lowest pitches are a descending chromatic scale, which is nothing more than the white and black keys of a piano, played in order, right to left. This is not original," the artists' added.
But much more is at stake in September for Led Zeppelin and for the music industry at large, specifically with regards to the copyright protections of music recorded before 1978.
During that period, copyright laws only applied to sheet music. So while a deposit copy of "Stairway to Heaven" was submitted to the U.S. patent office, it was not a complete transcription of the entire song, deposit copies rarely were.
Deposit copies, according to a Bloomberg report, were usually transcribed by hand by an employee at the record company. The copies often did not include the entire song, or defining elements of a song, like solos or elements of production.
In the initial "Stairway to Heaven" case, Page conceded that the introduction to "Stairway" — the part of the song that Wolfe's estate believes he copied — is not included in the deposit copy at all, and neither is his iconic guitar solo at the song's crescendo.
Does that mean those elements are not protected under copyright? A few hundred musicians believe the answer is that they ought to be protected on account of the original recording.
The 11-judge panel will consider the question of expanding copyright protections at the September hearing.
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