Members of Korn, Tool, Judas Priest, Linkin Park and several other bands have signed a brief in support of Led Zeppelin, whose years-long copyright case over the opening guitar riff of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ will return to court next month.
In 2016, a jury ruled that Led Zep’s classic had not in fact lifted its opening riff from ‘Taurus’ by psychedelic rock group Spirit. But earlier this year, a San Francisco court ruled that the case should be re-heard as the jury of the original case hadn’t been given the chance to hear the two songs in full. Rather, the jury members had only compared the sheet music.
In response to the court order, 123 music-makers filed an amicus brief, aiming to “elucidate the effect of the panel’s decision… on all songwriters, composers, musicians and producers in the United States and around the world”, the document, which was acquired by Digital Music News, reads.
Besides the abovementioned acts, the list of songwriters, artists and producers who have signed the brief includes Nile Rodgers, Sean Lennon, Jason Mraz, Max Martin, The-Dream, as well as members of Primus, Tears For Fears, Heart, A Perfect Circle, Puscifer, Dust Brothers, Little Big Town and Autolux. The 5,000-member-strong Nashville Songwriter Association International and the Songwriters of North America, which consists of “several hundred members”, have also followed suit.
The brief argues that if commonplace elements in songs – such as the chords and arpeggios used in both ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and ‘Taurus’ – become protected by copyright laws, it would “create significant confusion” and “significant risk of stifling creativity and causing excessive and unwarranted litigation”.
It also disputes the San Francisco court’s rationale for re-hearing the case, contending that having the jury listen to ‘Taurus’ rather than reading its sheet music “would be extremely prejudicial”, and that “it cannot realistically bear on credibility in any way”.
According to the brief, that’s because while the “deposit copy” of ‘Taurus’ – that is, the sheet music lodged with the US Copyright Office when its copyright was registered – is protected, sound recordings didn’t receive federal copyright protection until 1972. And ‘Taurus’ was recorded and released in 1967. Read the full document here.
The ‘Stairway To Heaven’ case will be re-heard the week of September 23 in San Francisco. The lawsuit was originally filed in 2014 by the estate of the late Randy California, the singer/guitarist of Spirit and the composer of ‘Taurus’.
The opposition from musicians to this case echoes that of Katy Perry and her collaborators in a recent lawsuit filed against them, which alleges the track ‘Dark Horse’ “copies” an older rap song, ‘Joyful Noise’.
The pop artist’s lawyer said in a statement that “the only thing in common [between both songs] is unprotectable expression – evenly spaced ‘C’ and ‘B’ notes – repeated. People including musicologists from all over are expressing their dismay over this… [The plaintiffs are] trying to own basic building blocks of music, the alphabet of music that should be available to everyone.”
The ‘Dark Horse’ case was closed last week, with the court ordering Perry, her collaborators and her label to pay more than £2 million in damages.