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Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin

United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

September 23, 2019, Argued and Submitted En Banc, San Francisco, California; March 9, 2020, Filed

No. 16-56057, No. 16-56287

Opinion

 [*1056]  McKEOWN, Circuit Judge, with whom THOMAS, Chief Judge, FLETCHER, RAWLINSON, MURGUIA, NGUYEN, Circuit Judges, join in full, and with whom WATFORD, Circuit Judge, joins except as to Part IV.C, and with whom HURWITZ, Circuit Judge, joins except as to Parts IV.C.3 and IV.C.4, and with whom BADE, Circuit Judge, joins except as to Part IV.C.3:

Stairway to Heaven has been called the greatest rock song of all time. Yet, hyperbole aside, nearly 40 years after the English rock band Led Zeppelin released its hit recording, the song is not impervious to copyright challenges. The estate of guitarist Randy Wolfe claims that Led Zeppelin and its guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant copied portions of Taurus, a song written by Wolfe and performed by his band Spirit.

This appeal stems from the [**7]  jury's verdict in favor of Led Zeppelin and a finding that the two songs are not substantially similar. Like the jury, we don't need to decide whether Stairway to Heaven has a place in the annals of iconic rock songs. Instead, we address a litany of copyright issues, including the interplay between the 1909 and 1976 Copyright Acts, the inverse ratio rule, the scope of music copyright, and the standards for infringement.

The 1909 Copyright Act, which does not protect sound recordings, controls our analysis. The copyright at issue is for the unpublished musical composition of Taurus, which was registered in 1967. The unpublished work is defined by the deposit copy, which in the case of Taurus consists of only one page of music. We also join the majority of circuits in rejecting the inverse ratio rule and overrule our precedent to the contrary. Finally, we are not persuaded by the challenges to jury instructions and various other evidentiary and trial rulings. We affirm the district court's entry of judgment in favor of Led Zeppelin and related parties.

Background

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952 F.3d 1051 *; 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 7585 **; Copy. L. Rep. (CCH) P31,606; 2020 WL 1128808

MICHAEL SKIDMORE, as Trustee for the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. LED ZEPPELIN; JAMES PATRICK PAGE; ROBERT ANTHONY PLANT; JOHN PAUL JONES; SUPER HYPE PUBLISHING,INC.; WARNER MUSIC GROUP CORPORATION; WARNER/CHAPPELL MUSIC,INC.; ATLANTIC RECORDING CORPORATION; RHINO ENTERTAINMENT COMPANY, Defendants-Appellees.MICHAEL SKIDMORE, as Trustee for the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. WARNER/CHAPPELL MUSIC, INC., Defendant-Appellant, and LED ZEPPELIN; JAMES PATRICK PAGE; ROBERT ANTHONY PLANT; JOHN PAUL JONES;SUPER HYPE PUBLISHING, INC.; WARNER MUSIC GROUP CORPORATION, ATLANTIC RECORDING CORPORATION; RHINO ENTERTAINMENT COMPANY, Defendants.

Prior History:  [**1] Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California. D.C. No. 2:15-cv-03462-RGK-AGR. R. Gary Klausner, District Judge, Presiding.

Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51006 (C.D. Cal., Apr. 8, 2016)

CORE TERMS

musical, district court, substantially similar, deposit, copying, similarities, infringement, instructions, unprotectable, descending, chromatic, song, inverse ratio rule, musical composition, copyright protection, instruction of a jury, jury instructions, sound recording, omission, sequence, pitch, plain error, compositions, recordings, ascending, arpeggios, creative, played, cases, chord