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Jury Sides With Zeppelin on ‘Stairway’

Los Angeles Times
Published: 6/24/2016 12:30:44 AM
Modified: 6/24/2016 12:30:53 AM

Los Angeles — Rock giant Led Zeppelin did not lift music that formed the basis for their iconic hit Stairway to Heaven, a jury found Thursday, clearing the iconic band of accusations that it stole the opening of one of rock’s most celebrated songs.

The unanimous decision by the panel of eight men and women came after a weeklong trial in which Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant and bassist John Paul Jones took the stand to rebuff the claim of thievery and tell how the band’s most famous song was created nearly half a century ago.

Jones was not a defendant in the case.

Page and Plant hugged members of their defense team after the clerk read the verdict from the four-man, four-woman jury.

“We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of Stairway to Heaven and confirming what we have known for 45 years,” they said in a joint statement. “We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”

At issue in the case was whether the British band stole the opening passage of Stairway from Taurus, an instrumental song by singer Randy Wolfe, who wrote and performed with his L.A. rock outfit Spirit, which gained some popularity in the late 1960s and 1970s for its novel fusion of rock with jazz and other styles of music. Wolfe died in 1997.

The decision comes a year after another Los Angeles jury found in favor of the family of R&B singer Marvin Gaye, who claimed pop stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams infringed on Gaye’s earlier hit Got to Give It Up. Gaye’s family was awarded $7.4 million, a figure later reduced by the judge to $5.3 million.

Some experts in the field of copyright law said the Led Zeppelin verdict might give other artists a boost in defending their work against claims of infringement.

“I think Led Zeppelin was really in a good position to do that, as this is one of the most famous songs of all time,” said intellectual property litigator Josh Schiller, a partner in Boies Schiller & Flexner in New York, after the verdict was announced.

“The jury’s verdict may have several noteworthy implications for current music copyright cases, such as those pending against Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran, and future ones, too,” added J. Michael Keyes, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney. “A music copyright plaintiff should think carefully about whether the amount of alleged infringement is significant enough to pursue, especially through a full-blown jury trial.”

Francis Malofiy, the attorney representing Wolfe’s estate, decried the verdict, saying Page and Plant “won on a technicality.”

“We proved they had access to the music, but the jury never heard the music,” Malofiy insisted to reporters moments after the verdict, referring to the original recording of Taurus, which was not played during the trial because it was not protected under federal copyright law at the time. The case, instead, hinged on the Taurus sheet music registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

He said that “It wasn’t a fair fight,” Malofiy said. “Justice wasn’t served.”

At stake were potentially millions of dollars in royalty payments, which would have gone to the estate of Wolfe. Malofiy had also asked jurors to award Wolfe a third of the songwriting credit for Stairway.

Jurors rejected the claim of infringement. But they believed the plaintiffs’ argument that the estate of Wolfe, a.k.a. Randy California, was the rightful holder of the copyright on Taurus, a claim that Zeppelin’s team disputed.

They also did not buy the defense team’s argument that Page and Plant had not had reasonable opportunity to have heard Taurus before they wrote Stairway to Heaven.

Michael Skidmore, a trustee of Wolfe’s estate who brought the case, said they lost on the issue of the “extrinsic test” of similarity: whether the two musical compositions share enough of the same elements for one song to be judged “substantially similar” to another.

Shortly before making that decision, the jury returned to the courtroom and asked U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner to hear recordings of a short section from each song played on an acoustic guitar again. They were played twice, and the jury returned to deliberations.

Just 15 minutes later, the court reconvened, and jurors announced they had reached a verdict.

“Money speaks louder than common sense,” Skidmore said after the panel announced its decision.

Helene Freeman, who led the Zeppelin defense with Peter Anderson, said, “We were confident that if people listened to the music, they would find it was original.”

Much of the Stairway trial hinged on two legal questions: Was it plausible that members of Zeppelin had sufficient opportunities to hear Taurus played before they wrote Stairway, and, if so, was the opening of Stairway substantially similar to Wolfe’s song.

The two sides also fought over whether Wolfe had signed over the rights to the song to a music company long ago.

In an effort to show the two bands were in the other’s orbit in the late 1960s, Malofiy called former members of Spirit to testify about festivals at which the two bands were on the bill and referred to old news reports in which Page acknowledged a fondness for Spirit’s music.

While the band members and a fan of Spirit, who testified about seeing Plant at a 1970 Spirit show in England, made a case that the two bands crossed paths a handful of times, no one could recall a concert at which the band performed Taurus and members of Zeppelin were definitely watching.

On the question of similarities between the two songs, both sides presented expert musicologists, who offered starkly different takes on the musical composition of Taurus.

The dispute came largely down to a brief passage that arrives 45 seconds into Taurus, an instrumental from Spirit’s 1968 debut album. Those notes, which evoke centuries-old Renaissance folk music, sound similar to the opening guitar chords of Stairway, which was released in 1971, three years after Taurus.

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