Led Zeppelin Has Unexpected Ally in “Stairway to Heaven” Case: US Department of Justice

Lawsuit alleges epic rock hit copied elements of Spirit's song "Taurus"

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" is at the center of a contentious copyright lawsuit.
Dina Regine/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / August 17, 2019 12:44 pm

In the years since the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit resulted in a heavy judgment against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, several other high-profile legal cases have charted out questions of musical influence and plagiarism. Justin Bieber faced a lawsuit from Casey Dienel over his song “Sorry” in 2016, which was dropped the following year. More recently, a jury found that Katy Perry’s song “Dark Horse” had copied elements of a Christian rap song, “Joyful Noise.”

The latest high-profile artist to become embroiled in a copyright dispute is one that’s no stranger to contentious questions of musical influence: Led Zeppelin. But the legendary quartet has an unexpected ally in defending themselves against accusations that their song “Stairway to Heaven” copied elements of Spirit’s song “Taurus.” On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an amicus brief supporting Led Zeppelin’s side of the case.

This legal case has existed in various forms since 2014, and recently took a new turn. As Yahoo! Entertainment reports:

…on Friday a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial. The panel found that U.S. District Court Judge Gary Klausner gave instructions that failed to make clear that an arrangement of otherwise unprotectable elements in a song can be sufficiently original to merit copyright protection.

The appeals court is set to hear the case this September.

Numerous songwriters have expressed alarm at the rulings in the “Dark Horse” and “Blurred Lines” cases. Earlier this year, Vulture talked with 8 songwriters, each of whom had distinct opinions on where the line between influence and theft existed. And Brian McBrearty of the site Musicologize explored the ramifications of this group of lawsuits; he’s also discussed the Led Zeppelin lawsuit in passing in this article. 

The presence of the Department of Justice in the Led Zeppelin lawsuit adds another wrinkle to an already-complex case — and one that may have a seismic impact on music landscapes past and present.

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