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On Led Zeppelin’s win and the need to err on the side of protecting free expression over intellectual property

Led Zeppelin's win against the "Stairway to Heaven" lawsuit is a win for the First Amendment

Jun 23, 2016 On Led Zeppelin’s win and the need to err on the side of protecting free expression over intellectual property

Led Zeppelin has produced and performed some great music. For me, “Stairway to Heaven” was not among that body, having been blared incessantly on the radio and beyond during my junior high school days, with my not being crazy about the music, versus the lyrics, to the point that I simply ignored the intriguing lyrics (minus the annoying “ooh-ooh-ooh’s”) that were carried by the tune, as well as the lyrics’ inspiration.

Free expression/First Amendment protection, of course, needs to be about protecting both expression that delights and annoys us. The estate of Randy Craig Wolfe/Randy California sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement of his “Taurus” song by Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway.” The lawsuit is about sound and not words. By putting limits on the breath of such suits about sound, we are protecting musical artists’ ability to create in a free-flowing way, including through on-stage improvisation — which is an essential part of creating and presenting great music, making the musician at one with the music and the moment — without the chill of whether that free flow will lead to a successful and financially crippling intellectual property lawsuit. We need to err on the side of protecting free expression over intellectual property. We need to overprotect rather than underprotect free expression.

As an aside, the estate’s lawyer/Led Zep fan Francis Alexander Molofiy used Led Zeppelin font in the court complaint, likely to grab the public’s attention, or perhaps the judge’s attention were the selected judge to have been familiar with Led Zep font.

Praised be the trial judge who refused to let the plaintiff play for the jury its cherry-picked version of “Taurus” to the jury, and praised be the jury for rejecting the Wolfe estate’s lawsuit today. Congratulations to Led Zeppelin and the rest of the defendants for their trial victory today. This is a day for true celebration. Sending a “Whole Lotta Love” and gratitude to Led Zeppelin for making my life richer with the group’s artistic work.

Very likely the Wolfe estate will appeal the loss in the trial court, with the appeal likely to be much less expensive than the estate’s expenses for presenting expert testimony at trial. Will an appeal win? An appeal would challenge whether the trial judge erred materially in his rulings on the law, and will not be an opportunity for the Wolfe estate to relitigate the facts of the case.

Today the First Amendment won, when on other days the amendment often takes big beatings, and when Donald Trump thinks little more of the First Amendment than he does toilet paper, with his zeal for weakening First Amendment protections for libel suits and with his campaign’s corralling journalists into press pens and barring news organizations who report too unfavorably about Trump.

I worship at the alter of the First Amendment. A robustly protected First Amendment well protects us all.

ADDENDUM- Although I am not fond of the “Stairway to Heaven” tune, I do very much like Led Zep’s “Kashmir,” “Going to California“, “Whole Lotta Love,” “Ramble On,” “Immigrant Song,” and “The Ocean.”

 

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