Retrial ordered in Led Zeppelin 'Stairway to Heaven' music copyright lawsuit

A new trial will be held in a copyright dispute over Led Zeppelin's hit song 'Stairway to Heaven.' An earlier trial ruled in the band's favor, but an appeals court has now ruled the judge in that trial gave misleading information to jurors.

Here's the background. Led Zeppelin was accused of copying the 1960s instrumental composition 'Taurus' by Randy Wolfe, in Led Zep's 1971 song 'Stairway To Heaven.'

Here's 'Stairway':

Here's 'Taurus':

But wait! Here's a Johannes Sebastian Bach composition that sounds like Taurus, so everyone borrows from everyone and or this is a common chord progression, WAT.

From Sky News:

An earlier trial saw a federal court jury in Los Angeles find in favour of Led Zeppelin, but the US appeals court has since ruled that the judge in the original trial had given misleading instructions to jurors.

The instructions were regarding copyright law, which was a vital part of the suit.

The lawsuit was brought in 2015 by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the late Randy Wolfe, who was guitarist of rock band Spirit and composed an instrumental called Taurus in 1967.

Techdirt's Mike Masnick has a great analysis post here. If you want to understand this from a copyright and internet nerd perspective, check out his post:

Here's an excerpt from Mike's post:

So when it comes to copyright it's important to look at what is actually covered by the copyright, which goes way beyond "hey, do these songs sound similar?" Unfortunately, many courts have messed this up over the years, including a few that came up with a ridiculous "substantial similarity" test, rather than actually comparing the copyright-protected elements of the songs. One such case that got this wrong is the infamous Blurred Lines case, in which even though the copyright-protected elements of two songs were totally different, it was decided that there was copyright infringement.

That's why we were pretty stunned, back in the summer of 2016 that a jury sided with Led Zeppelin. Part of the reason why that worked was that the jury was not allowed to just listen to the two songs, because the copyright on the sound recordings was not at issue (indeed, at the time of Taurus, there was no federal copyright to be had on the sound recording). Thus, they had to look at what was actually covered by copyright, which is much more limited. Of course, this is the correct way to do things, because if we're looking for copyright infringement, it seems ridiculously unfair to allow the jury to be influence by content that is not protectable under copyright.

So, the end result in the district court was the right one. But… this is the 9th Circuit we're talking about, and when it comes to copyright, it will always figure out how to make things worse. And that's what it's done by vacating the original order and ordering a brand new trial, with conditions that will make life much more difficult for Led Zeppelin (hat tip to Eriq Gardner at The Hollywood Reporter for spotting this first).