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Department of Justice sides with Led Zeppelin in “Stairway to Heaven” copyright dispute

on August 16, 2019, 4:09pm

Led Zeppelin has found an unlikely ally in its long-running “Stairway to Heaven” copyright dispute. Attorney General William Barr and the Department of Justice have come out in support of the iconic rockers, filing a friend of the court brief with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday (via NBC News).

Fans have debated for decades whether Zeppelin’s classic track ripped off the Spirit song “Taurus”. Michael Skidmore, trustee for the late “Taurus” songwriter Randy Wolfe, sought to get an official answer by suing the band for copyright infringement in 2014. Two years later, the case went before a jury, who ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin.

However, though the jury heard testimony from Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, the actual music in question was never played during trial. The presiding judge on the case had ruled that since “Taurus” was written in 1967, prior to a change in federal copyright law, only the sheet music for the song was actually protected. After the initial verdict, the case was sent to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel called for a second trial, stating that the jury should have heard the songs. Finally, in June, the Ninth Circuit decided they’d like to hear the appeal once more.

And this is where the Justice Department comes in. In its brief, the DOJ sided with the trial judge, agreeing that only the “Taurus” sheet music should be considered when questioning copyright. Audio recording didn’t fall under federal copyright protection until the laws changed in 1972, five years after Wolfe penned “Taurus”.

The DOJ’s brief went on to say that protection should be granted to “Taurus” only if the song is “virtually identical” to “Stairway to Heaven”, something the DOJ thinks can’t be proven. We’ll see if the Ninth Circuit heeds that advice when they hear the case again in September.