No quarter given in Stairway to Heaven trial

The jury decides for Led Zeppelin in plagiarism case brought against Stairway to Heaven. Now, the unsuccessful plaintiff could be left with the bills.

On rare and sometimes raucous occasion, the nuanced world of intellectual property law and copyright disputes is thrust into the public sphere in high-profile cases. These cases can be rather interesting, as they require an objective look at the facts, rather than an opinion shaped by the celebrity of either side.

For quite some time, music fans have been on the edge of their seats, waiting to hear the result of the case brought against Led Zeppelin for their alleged plagiarising of Stairway to Heaven. After a very interesting trial, the verdict is in; Stairway to Heaven was not ripped off of Spirit's 1968 instrumental piece Taurus.

Plaintiff's allegation trampled underfoot

The jury was not convinced that Taurus and Stairway to Heaven were similar enough to be called infringement.

A great deal of testimony centred on the commonplace nature of the musical constructions behind Stairway's iconic opening riff. In the end, the jury was not convinced that Taurus and Stairway to Heaven were similar enough to be called an infringement.

"We are grateful for the jury's conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favour, putting to rest questions about the origins of 'Stairway to Heaven' and confirming what we have known for 45 years," said Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in a statement released through their publisher, Warner Music Group.

One key takeaway for this case is its implication for copyright – or, more precisely, it's lack of one. As the verdict was reached by a jury, not a judge, this case does not set a legal precedent in the US.

The case will ramble on

Just because the verdict is in doesn't mean everything is settled. A key issue that must still be resolved is the payment of legal fees. As the plaintiff was unsuccessful, he can be held responsible for the defendants' legal fees. For all the expenses incurred, lawyers for Led Zeppelin have drawn up a bill totaling close to US$800,000.

A US Supreme Court ruling in Kirtsaeng v. Wiley and Sons established that the objective merits of a case should play a role in determining to what extent the losing side is responsible for the victor's legal fees. As such, the plaintiff could bear the brunt of Led Zeppelin's expenses.

This pitfall is not unique to the United States. Under Australian copyright law, an IP owner who leads an unsuccessful charge of infringement can also be responsible for the defendant's legal costs.

For more information on the latest developments in Intellectual Property law in Australia and around the world, contact Alder IP today.