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Stairway to Hefty Costs: Led Zeppelin to Carry Cost of Successful Defense

Source: Grill IP patents news

Stairway-to-Heaven-Skidmore-Attorneys-FeesSuccessfully defending a copyright infringement suit can come at a hefty cost, as the members of the rock band Led Zeppelin recently discovered. A California District Court has refused to award attorney’s fees and associated costs, even though they won the infringement dispute Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin over the rights to the band’s famous song “Stairway to Heaven.” The court found that the lawsuit brought was neither frivolous nor objectively unreasonable, which allowed the court to refuse awarding costs to the defendant.

The Case

    Musical plagiarism was the central claim on which Michael Skidmore, the trustee for the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, sued Warner Music Group Corp., Super Hype Publishing, Inc., and Led Zeppelin. Skidmore held that Zeppelin’s famous tune, “Stairway to Heaven” infringed on the song “Taurus” by Wolfe’s band Spirit. Led Zeppelin and friends won the case, after which they sought nearly $800,000 in litigation costs.

In line with Ninth Circuit protocol, the Court assessed several factors when determining whether to award fees. They include: the degree of success obtained on a claim, the motivation for launching the suit, frivolousness, the need for compensation and deterrence, and the objective reasonableness of both legal and factual arguments made during the trial. Additionally, the Court looked at any litigation misconduct, which was in high supply in this trial. The Supreme Court suggested that this factor be included in such a decision, following Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (2016).

    Upon analysis, certain factors favored both parties. For instance, the District Court determined that concerns of frivolousness and objective reasonableness favored Skidmore, for the initial claim withstood a motion for summary judgment. It was evident to the jury that the plaintiff owned the “Taurus” copyright and that the defendants had access to Spirit’s song at the time “Stairway to Heaven” was created. Further, the plaintiff came out on top in terms of motivation. The lawsuit was clearly to secure musical credit for Wolfe, evidenced by Wolfe’s express interest before his death to sue the defendants over the rights to their chart-topper.

    The defendants had the degree of success on their side, prevailing on every claim in trial. Both deterrence and compensation factored for the defendants as well, there being no need for deterrence since bad faith had not motivated the suit. That said, the insurer’s rejection of coverage for stale claims forced Led Zeppelin and fellow defendants to bear the costs of litigation.

    Probably the most entertaining and problematic aspect of the protracted lawsuit was Skidmore’s courtroom “antics.” For the Court, Skidmore showed “a tenuous grasp of legal ethics and a rudimentary understanding of courtroom decorum.” His actions included noting the unclean hands defense, after which the defense asked Skidmore to show the jury his hands “as if a showing of manicured fingers would rebut the equitable defense of unclean hands.” Following a Court order to exclude evidence on the Wolfe Trust’s charitable history, the plaintiff’s counsel “brazenly appeared before television cameras” and violated the order. Such courtroom conduct on the part of Skidmore clearly left a sour taste in the mouths of judges tasked with assessing award eligibility.

No fees for “Stairway” Creators

    In sum, three factors favored the defendants, litigation misconduct by the plaintiff’s counsel, the degree of success in trial, and the need for compensation. In contrast, motivation, frivolousness, and objective reasonableness spelled success for Skidmore when it came to award attorney’s fees. While Led Zeppelin’s classic is free from charges of plagiarism, that freedom comes at a hefty, uncovered, cost.   

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