Led Zeppelin, the legendary classic rock band, will face a new trial in a lawsuit accusing the musicians of stealing the intro to their iconic anthem “Stairway to Heaven” after a U.S. appeals court ruled Friday that jurors had been given misleading instructions.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco unanimously ruled that U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner gave jurors erroneous information about copyright law.
Singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page were cleared two years ago by a federal court in Los Angeles of allegedly copying the riff from the song “Taurus” by the band Spirit, when it was found the two songs were not substantially similar.
But the appeals court said Klausner failed to tell jurors that while individual elements of a song such as its notes or scale may not qualify for copyright protection, a combination of those elements may if it is sufficiently original.
Klausner also wrongly told jurors that copyright does not protect chromatic scales, arpeggios or short sequences of three notes, the 9th Circuit panel found.
"This error was not harmless as it undercut testimony by Skidmore's expert that Led Zeppelin copied a chromatic scale that had been used in an original manner," 9th Circuit Judge Richard Paez said.
Another issue jurors faced was that they could not listen to the recorded version of “Taurus” as performed by Spirit. Neither could they hear “Stairway,” Rolling Stone reported.
The 9th Circuit said jurors should have been allowed to hear the recordings to help establish that Page had "access" to "Taurus," meaning he would have been familiar with it.
Page initially said he didn’t know Spirit, but later admitted admiring their music and owning some of the band's albums.
Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the estate of late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, filed the lawsuit against Led Zeppelin in 2015.
"This was a song that Randy California had written for the love of his life, Robin. That was her sign, Taurus," said Skidmore’s attorney, Francis Malofiy. "Little did anyone know it would fall into the hands of Jimmy Page and become the intro to 'Stairway to Heaven.'"
Wolfe, who drowned in 1997 saving his son in Hawaii, wrote "Taurus" in either 1966 or 1967. "Stairway to Heaven" came out in 1971.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.