Members of the band testified in the California courtroom.

A famous song and rock band have attracted worldwide interest in a copyright lawsuit that was just decided in federal court in California in June 2016. Of course, we refer to "Stairway to Heaven" and British rock band Led Zeppelin, which was sued along with Warner Music and affiliates by the trustee of the estate of a deceased guitarist for copyright infringement.

The suit alleged that Zeppelin lifted the opening bars of rock anthem "Stairway" from the beginning of an instrumental song called "Taurus" that was written, performed and recorded by Randy Wolfe, known as Randy California, and his band Spirit. Wolfe was reportedly discovered by Jimi Hendrix. Apparently, Led Zeppelin had been an opening act for Spirit.

The jury considered testimony from members of both bands along with music experts in deciding whether the writers of "Stairway to Heaven" had access to Taurus and whether there was substantial similarity in the elements of the musical composition of the two songs.

According to the Jury Instructions filed in the case, the jury was instructed by the judge on how to apply the applicable copyright law, including in part:

  • To constitute infringement, there must be substantial copying of original, protected material. Copying that is only "trivial or minimal" is not infringing.
  • To show substantial similarity, the plaintiff must prove both "substantial extrinsic similarity" and "substantial intrinsic similarity."
  • To determine extrinsic similarity, the jury applies an objective test to see if the works are "similar in original expression" by comparing the musical elements of the works by disregarding those in the second work not original to the first and seeing whether the remaining elements that are in both are substantially or insubstantially similar. If the similarities are insubstantial, the verdict is for the defendants.
  • If substantial extrinsic similarity is found, then determine whether there is substantial intrinsic similarity, asking if an "ordinary, reasonable person" would find substantial similarity after disregarding the musical elements of the second song that were not original to the first.
  • If the intrinsic similarity is not substantial, the verdict is for the defendants.
  • If both intrinsic and extrinsic similarity are substantial and access to the plaintiff's work by the defendant was found, copying is presumed and the burden shifts to the defendant to show independent creation.
  • And more

As these instructions illustrate, copyright law is extremely complex and multifaceted, and it is further complicated by extensive and sometimes varying interpretations by courts across the country. The U.S. Copyright Office provides an online overview of federal copyright law.

Anyone who believes another person or business has infringed on copyrighted material should speak with an experienced intellectual property lawyer about what legal options may be available. Of course, any person or company accused of violating a copyright or facing a copyright infringement lawsuit should seek legal representation as soon as possible.

Often, intellectual property disputes like those regarding copyrights can be settled through negotiation rather than having to invest substantial money and time in court. Sometimes, though, settlement is not possible and legal counsel is required to vigorously advocate on behalf of such a party.

The attorneys of Millstone, Peterson & Watts, LLP, in Roseville have represented hundreds of copyright clients - both those asserting infringement and those defending against such allegations - in copyright litigation across the state of California.