Involving one of the most anticipated rulings in copyright law in recent years, last summer finally saw an end to the case against famous British rock band Led Zeppelin over their hit song, Stairway to Heaven. Centered around the so-called Inverse Ratio Rule, attorney Daniel Schnapp looks back on the judgment, in which it was alleged that the opening riff of the track infringed on the Spirit song, Taurus.
“Last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the United States District Court for the Central District of California after a jury trial,” explains Daniel Schnapp, “rejecting an earlier judgment and, instead, ruling in favor of the band Led Zeppelin.”
The ruling, Schnapp further reveals, came in light of a six-year-old copyright case in which it was alleged that the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin infringed on a song written by guitarist Randy Wolfe. That song was Taurus by the American rock band, Spirit.
Central to the case was the legal precept regarding the need to establish substantial similarities and copying, sufficient to warrant a claim of copyright infringement. Daniel Schnapp explains that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a prior decision with regards to what’s known as the Inverse Ratio Rule.
Daniel Schnapp also Explained What’s Known as the Inverse Ratio Rule
The Inverse Ratio Rule is invoked where evidence exists of access to an original musical work. In such cases, the burden of proof to show similarities between the original and the allegedly infringing work is mitigated to give rise to an inference of copying.
“For example, if a famous musician were alleged to have copied another musician’s song, the Inverse Ratio Rule would reduce the need for that musician to show substantial similarities between the works if access was clearly demonstrated,” Daniel Schnapp said.
Crucially, earlier in the case, Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, Jimmy Page, had been quizzed regarding his ownership of the album containing the track in question, Taurus, at the time of writing Stairway to Heaven. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Inverse Ratio Rule unfairly advantages those whose work is most accessible, Schnapp reports, by lowering the standard of proof for similarity.
“The court stated that the basis for the Inverse Ratio Rule in our digitally interconnected world is increasingly diluted,” reveals the attorney. What this means, Schnapp says, is that clearly demonstrating access is at odds with the ubiquity of today’s accessibility of media online and via subscription services such as Spotify.
Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the Inverse Ratio Rule should not factor into the case, ultimately calling for substantial similarities to be proved instead, rather than merely demonstrating access. “Time will now tell,” adds Daniel Schnapp “whether overruling the Inverse Ratio Rule will make it more or less difficult to prove copyright infringement in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the future.”