July 19, 2016 by Jordan Fine
Intro: “The Hook”
This summer, an American jury found that “Stairway to Heaven” [hereafter Stairway] rockers Led Zeppelin did not infringe the song “Taurus” [hereafter Taurus], performed by the band Spirit. The plaintiff, Randy Wolfe—or rather, a trustee for the trust which owns the late Wolfe’s copyright—was Spirit’s songwriter, guitarist and vocalist, and the copyright owner of the musical work. Wolfe alleged that Stairway songwriters Robert Plant and Jimmy Page attended a Spirit concert, heard his 1967 composition Taurus, then stole the descending chord progression, arpeggio sequence, and harpsichord melody, using it as their 1971 classic ballad’s introduction.
The case—conducted and concluded by jury like the questionable “Blurred Lines” lawsuit—faced some controversy. And, in the wake of the Blurred Lines ruling, it was difficult to forecast this case’s outcome. On June 23, however, the jury needed less than a day’s deliberation to deliver a reasonable judgment: scant evidence of copying and little substantial similarity between the songs meant no infringement.
It was reported that Wolfe’s attorney stated he “lost on a ‘technicality’” and plans to appeal. The technicality on which he lost, according to the trustee, was the substantial similarity comparison. It is a woeful misunderstanding of the significance of substantiality in non-literal copyright infringement to consider it a “mere technicality”.