Led Zeppelin’s big win: Jury rules no theft in ‘Stairway to Heaven’
Photo by Jim Summaria, http://www.jimsummariaphoto.com/ (Wikipedia:Contact us/Photo submission) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A federal jury Thursday rejected a lawsuit alleging that Led Zeppelin stole the opening guitar riff of its classic hit “Stairway to Heaven” from an obscure tune by the defunct Los Angeles group Spirit.
The eight-person jury in downtown Los Angeles found there was not enough evidence to support claims by the estate of the late Spirit songwriter/guitarist Randy Wolfe, known as Randy California, that the guitar intro to “Stairway” was lifted from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.”
The jury declined to award any damages, ending the legal battle that turned into a spectacle, thanks primarily to the daily attendance of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant, both of whom testified during the trial.
During closing arguments Wednesday, an attorney for Wolfe’s estate told jurors that Page and Plant should be held accountable for millions of dollars in royalties for having “lifted” a brief musical passage from “Taurus” more than 45 years ago and using it as the introduction to their rock epic “Stairway to Heaven.”
But an opposing lawyer countered that the delicately descending pattern is a commonplace “musical building block” that is in the public domain and thus not legally protectable.
Jurors began deliberating Wednesday afternoon, but went home without reaching a verdict. The panel returned this morning and asked to review a video showing a plaintiff’s musicologist playing the roughly 2-minute guitar intro to “Stairway” and the Spirit song “Taurus.” The musical excerpts were played for the jury twice.
While watching the video, some jurors closed their eyes and looked down, appearing to focus intently on the music. The panel then went back to the jury room to continue deliberating.
Minutes later, the panel announced it had a verdict, and cleared Page and Plant of any wrongdoing.
The famed musicians smiled after the verdict was announced, stood and shook hands with attorneys and other supporters.
In a statement issued through a publicist, Page and Plant expressed gratitude to the jury for “putting to rest questions about the origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and confirming what we have known for 45 years. We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”
Outside the courthouse, their attorney, Peter Anderson, told City News Service he was obviously thrilled with the verdict.
“We all appreciate the jury’s work and are thankful that the originality of ‘Stairway’ has been confirmed, and this is all behind us,” he said.
Plaintiff’s attorney Francis Malofiy, however, said he was “sad and disappointed.”
“We don’t think justice has been served,” he said.
Malofiy contended during the trial that Page and Plant crossed paths with Spirit while on the road and were familiar with the Los Angeles band’s music, particularly the group’s album track “Taurus,” which the lawyer claims became the basis for the 2-minute, 14-second acoustic-guitar intro to “Stairway.”
“We’re asking for a one-third credit, a shared credit,” Malofiy told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday, asking that damages be assigned to the Wolfe trust in an amount between $3.4 million and $13.5 million.
However, Anderson told the panel the plaintiff never proved that the trust owned the copyright to “Stairway” or that Page and Plant were familiar with “Taurus” or that Page and Plant had ever heard Spirit perform in the few times the bands shared a concert bill in 1968 and 1969.
Anderson said the “descending chromatic scale” played by Page in the first moments of “Stairway” is merely a musical device, so common and unoriginal that “it belongs to everyone.”
A music expert testified last week that any similarity between “Stairway To Heaven” and “Taurus” can also be found in music dating back more than 300 years.
Lawrence Ferrara, a music professor at New York University, said 17th century Venetian opera singers and Mozart used the descending chromatic scale found in both songs.
“That progression, that movement, has been around for 300 years, dating back to the 17th century,” Ferrara testified. “In the 20th century, before ‘Taurus,’ a large number of popular musicians, artists and composers also used it.”
The witness for Led Zeppelin’s defense team told jurors that the device was a “musical building block” for a song, adding that it is not “something anyone can possibly own.”
But Malofiy alleged that the pattern used in both “Stairway To Heaven” and “Taurus” was actually a “very unique compositional element.”
“Page never said where he got the idea for the intro,” the lawyer said. “That’s because it was a piece of music that was lifted from Spirit and Randy California.”
David Woirhaye, the chief financial officer of Rhino Entertainment — which markets and distributes the Led Zeppelin catalog — testified that sales of “Stairway” resulted in revenues of $3.4 million during the five-year statutory period at issue in the case, not including publishing royalties.
The recording of “Taurus” was not played for the jury. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled that only the copyrighted sheet music was admissible. The jury heard witnesses playing the Spirit song — as well as “Stairway” — on both guitar and piano.
The suit was lodged on behalf of Michael Skidmore, administrator of Wolfe’s trust. The songwriter drowned in 1997 off the coast of Hawaii.
Defendants included Page and Plant, both of whom testified during the trial, and three companies involved in the Led Zeppelin catalog. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones also spent about 15 minutes on the witness stand, although he is not party to the lawsuit.
Warner Music Group — which owns Rhino Entertainment — issued a statement saying “supporting our artists and protecting their creative freedom is paramount. We are pleased that the jury found in favor of Led Zeppelin, re- affirming the true origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’
“Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands in history, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are peerless songwriters who created many of rock’s most influential and enduring songs.”