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Skidmore v. Zeppelin

The en banc court affirmed the district court’s judgment after a jury trial in favor of Led Zeppelin in a copyright action alleging that the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven infringed Taurus, a song written by guitarist Randy Wolfe and performed by his band Spirit.

In Part I, the en banc court held that the 1909 Copyright Act, which does not protect sound recordings, rather than the 1976 Copyright Act, controlled its analysis because the copyright at issue was for the unpublished musical composition of Taurus, which was registered in 1967. The scope of the copyright in the unpublished work was defined by the deposit copy, which in the case of Taurus consisted of only one page of music. Accordingly, it was not error for the district court to decline plaintiff’s request to play sound recordings of the Taurus performance that contained further embellishments or to admit the recordings on the issue of substantial similarity.

In Part II, the en banc court held that proof of copyright infringement required plaintiff to show: (1) that he owned a valid copyright in Taurus; and (2) that Led Zeppelin copied protected aspects of the work. The en banc court explained that the second prong contains two separate components: “copying” and “unlawful appropriation.” A plaintiff may prove copying circumstantially by showing access and striking similarity. The hallmark of “unlawful appropriation” is that the works share substantial similarities. Both an extrinsic and an intrinsic test must be satisfied for the works to be deemed substantially similar.

In Part III, the en banc court addressed the district court’s exclusion of sound recordings of Taurus as relevant to prove access but too prejudicial because of the risk that the jury would confuse access with substantial similarity. The en banc court concluded that this evidentiary issue was moot because the jury found access.

In Part IV, the en banc court addressed three jury instruction issues: (1) the failure to give an inverse ratio rule instruction; (2) the sufficiency of the court’s originality instructions; and (3) the failure to give a selection and arrangement instruction. In Part IV.A, joining the majority of circuits, the en banc court rejected the inverse ratio rule, which requires a lower standard of proof of substantial similarity when a high degree of access is shown. The en banc court overruled circuit precedent to the contrary. In Part IV.B, the en banc court held that the district court properly instructed the jury on originality. In Part IV.C.1, the en banc court concluded that the failure to give a selection and arrangement instruction would be reviewed for plain error. In Part IV.C.2, the en banc court held that the district court did not commit plain error. In Part IV.C.3, the en banc court held that the district court did not commit any error because plaintiff did not present a selection and arrangement theory at trial. In Part IV.C.4, the en banc court held that, even though the district court did not instruct the jury on selection and arrangement, its instructions, as a whole, fairly and adequately covered plaintiff’s argument for extrinsic similarity between Taurus and Stairway to Heaven.

In Part V, the en banc court held that the district court did not err in setting trial time limits, responding to a jury question, admitting expert testimony, or declining to award attorneys’ fees.

Concurring, Judge Watford wrote that he joined the court’s opinion, with the exception of section IV.C, because he saw no reason to decide whether plaintiff adequately preserved his request for a selection-and-arrangement instruction when, even if such an instruction had been given, no reasonable jury could have found infringement.

Concurring in part and dissenting in part, Judge Ikuta, joined by Judge Bea, wrote that she dissented from Part IV(B) to (C) because, without plaintiff’s requested instruction on selection and arrangement, the jury was deprived of the opportunity to consider plaintiff’s central theory of the case, and the instructions given to the jury were misleading.

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