After a brisk, colorful trial, a jury is expected to leave a Los Angeles federal courtroom Wednesday afternoon and deliberate the question every rock fan has been forced to mull over for the past week: Did Led Zeppelin lift the distinctive arpeggio that opens “Stairway to Heaven” from Spirit’s 1967 instrumental “Taurus”?
The trustee for the estate of Randy Wolfe – better known as Spirit’s main songwriter, Randy California – is seeking $40 million from Zeppelin, alleging that their classic rock anthem violated his copyright.
The last high-profile verdict in a copyright infringement lawsuit – a $7.4 million award against “Blurred Lines” songwriters Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in 2015 that was later reduced to $5.3 million – generated a flurry of fretful suppositions about its effects on the music industry, copyright law and the ability of musicians to create freely.
If a jury orders Zeppelin to fork over even a fraction of what the Wolfe estate is asking, expect many more such predictions in the days to come. As rock fans prepare for the verdict, here’s what might — and might not — happen if Zeppelin loses.
The Law Remains the Same
This is a jury verdict, based solely on the unique facts of the case. Unlike a judge’s decision, which may offer a new interpretation of the law for future courts to take into consideration, a jury verdict sets no legal precedent. Copyright law as it exists today in the Central District of California will not change, regardless of how the jury decides. (Incidentally, this is also true of the “Blurred Lines” verdict, though ill-informed commentators continue to suggest that it somehow altered the law. Ignore them.)
A verdict for the Wolfe estate won’t make it easier for anyone to prove infringement in the future. And Michael Skidmore, the estate trustee, cannot brandish this verdict at the composers of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” – or at the writers of the other 65 songs that Led Zeppelin argued sounded similar to both “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” – and ask them to cough up cash. That’s not how it works.
A Flood of Copycat Suits – or Not
If there’s a verdict for the plaintiff – especially a hefty one – many news reports on the trial will contain two quotes. The first will predict that this unwarranted windfall will lead to a gold rush of greedy plaintiffs filing spurious copyright claims against popular musical acts. The second will declare that no such thing is going to happen. The first will come from Led Zeppelin’s attorney; the latter will come from the Wolfe estate.
Lawyers don’t talk to reporters because they’re lonely. They have a story to tell, and they want the next jury they face to feel a certain way – either that copyright infringement verdicts are out of control or that wronged songwriters deserve their day in court. Read these quotes (and any others you encounter) in context.