Led Zeppelin Probably Would’ve Won Anyway, But Some Mistakes Can’t Be Wished Away

Last time, I explained why I thought the Ninth Circuit’s recent reversal[ref]The verdict was actually “vacated”—thrown out—and “remanded”—sent back down for a new trial. “Reversal” would have meant that Led Zeppelin’s victory was turned into a loss.[/ref] of the jury verdict in Led Zeppelin’s favor was, long-term, a good thing for copyright law (even if I kind of liked the verdict and am genuinely sorry for Led Zeppelin). The reason is that the reversal gave one panel of the Ninth Circuit an opportunity to try to fix the Ninth Circuit’s unhelpful legal framework for determining copyright infringement.
But that isn’t why the panel reversed. While the panel did make some suggestions about how to present the “inverse-ratio” rule to the jury, the way it was presented to the original jury isn’t what merited reversal. What merited reversal was the lack of another jury instruction about a basic and uncontroversial principle of copyright law that the parties agreed should have been there in some form. In short, the case is being reversed—and the Ninth Circuit is getting a chance to fix its own weird copyright law—because what appears to have been a brain fart.

Jury Instructions: An Introduction

We all gasped when we heard about the reversal. Jury verdicts are hardly ever reversed.[ref]SIGH. Yes, I know I was pretty confident that the jury verdict in the Java-Android case would be upheld. But how was I to know that the Federal Circuit would just decide that fair use never should have been a jury question?[/ref] One of the few ways a jury verdict can be thrown out[ref]Short of deciding the jury shouldn’t really have had a say.[/ref] is if the jury was badly instructed in the law. Juries, naturally, don’t bring any knowledge about the law with them when they serve. That’s not their job, really. Their job is to weigh evidence, make credibility determinations, and so forth. But at some point, they need to be told what the law is, so they can take all that evidence they weighed and apply it to the law and render a verdict. How this is accomplished might surprise you.
There are several ways for jury instructions to be prepared and delivered to a jury, but the main way is this. First, the parties’ attorneys confer about what jury instructions they can agree on and jointly submit those instructions to the court. In this, they are aided by pattern jury instructions prepared at the circuit court’s direction. But pattern jury instructions don’t cover every aspect of every area of the law. You’d need ever-updating volumes to do that. Also, the pattern jury instructions aren’t unassailable: a party might disagree with one and explain how it should be and why.
For all other jury instructions, the parties submit their own versions of instructions they think address all of the legal issues being raised at trial, together with a short explanation of the legal authorities for their versions. The judge decides which version to use, or the judge might even craft his or her own version based on their own research.
Are the instructions then typed up, collated and distributed to the jurors in a neat binder? No! The judge reads them to the jurors, at the very end of the case, during what is called the “jury charge.” The jurors have to memorize the instructions (though they can ask to re-hear specific ones later during their deliberations).

“Selection and Arrangement”: An Introduction

In this case, the parties agreed that they needed an instruction about what to do with a work that is made up of unprotectable elements. Just because your work is made up of lots of unprotectable elements, that doesn’t mean your work as a whole can’t be protected by copyright. If you put those unprotectable elements together in an original way, then the way you put those elements together is protectable, though not the individual elements themselves.[ref]After all, you can theoretically dissect any creative work down into non-protectable elements: individual notes, individual words and phrases, individual brushstrokes, etc. It’s what you do with those non-protectable elements that counts.[/ref] Courts call this “selection and arrangement,” which makes it seem more abstract than it is.
In this case, the plaintiffs hold the copyright in the song “Taurus,” which has for years been rumored as the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”[ref]But inspiration isn’t infringement! Well, at least, not necessarily.[/ref] When the plaintiffs finally got around to suing[ref]This dispute has been brewing for decades and was for a long time thought to be too stale to bring. But a recent Supreme Court decision changed that by holding that claims of copyright infringement are almost never too stale, but damages are limited to the three year period before the lawsuit is filed. Thus, most old claims are still impractical to bring, since the damages are too old to be recovered. But an evergreen song like “Stairway to Heaven” still generates enough revenue to be worth suing over.[/ref], Led Zeppelin argued (among other things) that any similarities between the songs were only for non-protectable elements, like the use of the chromatic scale. Plaintiffs argued that, even if that were true, the “selection and arrangement” of those elements were original (and, by implication, that “Stairway to Heaven” took that selection and arrangement).
Both parties recognized the need for an instruction on this issue. They disagreed on what it should say. They submitted competing instructions for the judge to consider. Then came the jury charge, at the very end of the case, just before the jury began deliberations. The judge began to read the instructions. Now, normally, a party would have an opportunity to object on the record to an instruction. This is a prerequisite to complaining about it on appeal. But the judge here didn’t want to hear any objections. He reasoned that, if the parties disagreed about an instruction in their submissions, it was reasonable to assume that they would object to an instruction that didn’t match what they’d submitted.
The parties waited for the instruction about what to do with works made up of unprotectable elements. It never came. This was good for Led Zeppelin, though not ideal. On the one hand, since Led Zeppelin had presented evidence that all they’d taken (if anything) from “Taurus” was not protectable, such an instruction couldn’t help their argument, no matter how it was crafted. On the other hand, it was foreseeable at the time that the missing jury instruction could imperil a jury verdict in Led Zeppelin’s favor (assuming they could focus on it with 500 other things going on at that moment[ref]Is there a time when a litigator has more going on than right when a jury verdict is handed down?[/ref]).
On appeal, the strongest argument—that trial court was correct not to give the instruction—wasn’t really available to Led Zeppelin because even it had suggested an instruction. (Led Zeppelin tried anyway.) Instead, it had to argue that the missing instruction made no difference to the jury’s deliberations. That’s where another major goof with the jury instructions came in.

Copyright’s Broad Scope

Nearly all copyright cases will need an instruction about originality. Without “originality,” there is no copyright. Originality, however, is pretty easy to achieve. All that’s really required is that the work be expressive (i.e., not just ideas) and the product of a human mind. This last requirement not only excludes things like the “monkey selfie,” but also things like underlying facts, which exist independent of human thought; and stock “tools of the trade” commonly available to everyone in the creative field, like stock characters, computer code that everyone uses, certain three chord progressions, and so forth (what lawyers call “scènes à faire”). It also excludes material the author copied from other works (including those in the public domain), but only if the author actually copied them. Originality doesn’t mean novelty, just that it’s the author’s independent expression.
Originality is so basic to copyright law that there’s actually one of those “pattern jury instructions” about it. Pattern jury instructions aren’t law and aren’t always appropriate in every instance, but departure from them demands explanation. The court took the model instruction and added the stuff in bold and took out the stuff that’s been struck through:

An original work may include or incorporate elements taken from works owned by others, with the owner’s permission. However, any elements from prior works or the public domain are not considered original parts and not protected by copyright. Instead, the original parts of the plaintiff’s work are the parts created:
1. independently by the work’s author, that is, the author did not copy it from another work; and
2. by use of at least some minimal creativity.
In copyright law, the “original” part of a work need not be new or novel.

You might detect a pattern here (as it were). The instruction about how to treat works consisting of non-protectable elements was left out. Now the instruction about originality includes a new sentence that emphasizes how non-protectable elements aren’t protectable, without telling the jury that those non-protectable elements can be selected and arranged in a protectable way.

What it Means to Create

I don’t know if copyright has a single “heart.” Perhaps, like an octopus, it has several hearts. But surely one of copyright law’s hearts is that creativity can and often does build on the work of others. This idea is echoed in fair use. And it is echoed in the non-controversial idea that not every element of a work must be protectable for the work to be entitled to copyright protection. “Selection and arrangement” is just a stilted and abstract way of saying: if you give 100 kids the same collection of 100 lego bricks, you will have 100 different original works in about 30 minutes, even though no single lego brick is protectable and even though the 100 different original works will naturally share certain techniques in common.
These two errors in the jury instructions aren’t just about technicalities of a highly technical law. Goodness knows there’s a lot of those in copyright law. No, they go to one of the basic tenets of copyright law: what it means to create.
My charitable interpretation of all this is that the court had a major brain fart that Led Zeppelin’s lawyers didn’t see coming or didn’t fully understand how perilous the consequences would be. The other interpretation is that this was a legal strategy that worked too well and backfired badly. It’s too bad. I strongly suspect that a correctly instructed jury would have come to the same verdict, but the scale of these mistake is such that we can’t safely assume that. I also strongly suspect Led Zeppelin will prevail on remand—after incurring more expense, lost time and anxiety.
Thanks for reading!

Rick Sanders

Rick is the litigation half of Aaron & Sanders, PLLC; and, from 2012 to 2014, an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, where he was teaching Copyright Law. Vandy also happens to be where he got his law degree in 2000. After graduation, he practiced at a major intellectual-property law firm in Silicon Valley for a few years. He returned to Nashville in 2004, where he worked for a large Nashville firm, practicing as much intellectual-property law as he could, but also a lot of commercial law. He left that firm in 2011 to start Aaron & Sanders with Tara Aaron, so he could practice intellectual-property law full time and work with start-ups and other non-institutional clients.