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Just a year after a California jury found Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke liable for infringing Marvin Gaye’s copyright in their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines”, Led Zeppelin’s frontmen Robert Plant and Jimmy Page are facing similar allegations that they lifted the opening chords of their 1971 hit “Stairway to Heaven” from an obscure 1960’s band named Spirit, who released the instrumental “Taurus” in 1968.

Page and Plant moved for summary judgment in California Court; however, U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner denied the motion this week, finding that “the descending bass line in both Taurus and Stairway to Heaven appears at the beginning of both songs, arguably the most recognizable and important segments.[…] Additionally, the descending bass line is played at the same pitch, repeated twice, and separated by a short bridge in both songs.”

Have a listen for yourself to “Taurus” here and “Stairway to Heaven” here.

By moving for summary judgement, Page and Plant effectively tried to call Spirit’s bluff and have the case dismissed before incurring the expense, publicity and effort of a full-blown trial for copyright infringement. Instead, the legendary rockers are facing a jury trial in the same jurisdiction where the Gaye Family (Mr. Gaye’s trustees) were awarded US$5.2million in a highly controversial and widely debated decision.

Williams and Thicke similarly tried to quickly dispense of the Gaye Family’s lawsuit by initially suing for a declaration of non-infringement, but instead they found themselves on the wrong side of a ruling that many legal scholars and international copyright experts concur is overreaching and wrongly decided.

Specifically, observers convincingly argue that the “Blurred Lines” decision attempts to extend copyright to the tempo, instrumentation, era or general feel of Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give it Up”, rather than the actual musical composition of the song. Regardless of where your musical allegiances happen to lie, a close listen to the two songs demonstrates that although they are certainly similar, it is not abundantly clear that “Blurred Lines” is a note-for-note remake of “Got to Give it Up”.

On the other hand, it does not require an advanced degree in musicology or rock criticism to ascertain that there is at least a passing resemblance between the Spirit and Zeppelin songs at issue. Moreover, despite their iconic status as one of the most important and successful rock bands of all time, Led Zeppelin have fought allegations of plagiarism throughout their entire career, having settled disputes involving Blind Willie Dixon (“Bring it on Home” and “Whole Lotta Love”), Richie Valens (“Boogie with Stu”), Jake Holmes (“Dazed and Confused”) and Howlin’ Wolf (“The Lemon Song”), among others.

Speaking as a moderate fan, it is my personal view that this does not bode well for the band – however, it remains to be seen if Spirit’s 45-year delay in bringing a claim will have an effect on the ruling. Accordingly, it would not be surprising if a confidential settlement was executed between the parties within the next year.

Nevertheless, high-profile cases such as these certainly raise very interesting legal questions regarding how far copyright can be extended, and whether it protects the arguable “inspiration” that results when an artist has access to an original work.

Stay tuned for updates!

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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