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Led Zeppelin’s copyright case will determine what happens to Ed Sheeran

The fate of the lawsuit against Ed Sheeran is now tied to the outcome of the controversial Led Zeppelin copyright infringement case.

A Manhattan judge has cancelled a jury trial, saying that he would rather wait for the resolution of the Stairway to Heaven case.

Judge Louis Staton told the representatives for Sheeran and the heirs of Townsend, to “take the summer off” and that he would summon them after the decision in the Spirit-Zeppelin case.

Ed Townsend’s heirs sued Sheeran in 2016 alleging that Thinking Out Loud copied rhythmic elements and major harmonic progressions from Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, which was co-written by Townsend.

Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, has been deep in a costly litigious process brought on by Spirit, who claim that the opening guitar riff of Stairway to Heaven lifts their 1968 song, Taurus. 

The similarities between the two cases are what has predicated the judge’s reasoning to stay proceedings.

If the Stairway to Heaven litigation is reheard (following years of pancake decisions) and makes it to the Supreme Court, it may mean that the Thinking Out Loud case may only be heard in the year 2020.

Copyright litigation is an intricate, uncertain, and from some perspectives, inadequate means of resolving ideational feuds between artists.

One of the most controversial of these decisions was the Australian Federal Court decision in Larrikin Music, where a 4 bar flute riff in Men at Work’s song, Down Under, was held to infringe Marion Sinclair’s nursery rhyme, Kookaburra. 

The case is a model for the pitfalls of copyright litigation, as it is an instance where a cultural tribute was deemed to infringe law. The dark product of these proceedings was the eventual suicide of Greg Ham, Men At Work’s flautist.

One only hopes that these court proceedings are resolved expediently, to ensure that our favourite artists are not subject to the awful by-products of litigation. Though in many ways, it may be too late.

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July 6, 2019

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