Led Zeppelin won’t have to share royalties from one of rock’s masterpieces after a jury found guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant didn’t steal the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven” from an obscure 1968 instrumental.
A jury of four men and four women unanimously rejected the claim that "Stairway to Heaven" incorporated unique and original elements of Spirit’s “Taurus” track, even while the panel agreed evidence showed that Page and Plant would have been familiar with the the Southern California group’s song.
The verdict came shortly after jurors were allowed by the judge to re-hear the acoustic guitar versions of “Taurus” and “Stairway” that had been used in trial to compare the two songs. The original album version of “Taurus” wasn’t allowed as evidence because the copyright at issue pertained only to the sheet music, not to the recording.
“We’re very disappointed,” Francis Malofiy, the lawyer for the trust of the late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, said after the verdict. “We were fighting with one foot stapled to the floor and one arm tied behind our back.”
Thursday’s verdict followed a five-day trial in Los Angeles federal court that focused on concerts and clubs attended by Led Zeppelin members decades ago and whether they heard Spirit perform “Taurus,” a song built around a descending chromatic scale recognizable to Led Zeppelin fans in the first measures of “Stairway to Heaven,” which was released in 1971.
Page testified that he liked Spirit but didn’t even know of the controversy until his son-in-law played an Internet mash-up of the songs. Page and bass player John Paul Jones told jurors they hadn’t been aware that Spirit was also on the bill at their first U.S. concert in 1968 in Denver. While one Spirit member recalled rounds of drinking and snooker with Plant after his band played at a U.K. nightclub in 1970, Plant testified he remembered a car crash on his way home that night but not hearing or meeting Spirit.
Jurors didn’t get to hear full descriptions of Led Zeppelin’s hard-drinking, drug-consuming ways in the 1970s and speculation about impaired memories. And they never got to hear a recording of “Taurus” because the copyright claim was based only on the sheet music for the song. So they listened as musicologists either plucked out the two tunes on a guitar or tapped them out on an electric piano, along with other pop songs containing chromatic progressions.
Jurors did get to hear recordings of Led Zeppelin rehearsals and, as the defense’s final exhibit, were treated to the album version of “Stairway to Heaven” -- all eight minutes of it.
Warner Music Group, Led Zeppelin’s publisher, said the verdict reaffirms the true origins of “Stairway to Heaven.”
“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,” Page and Plant said in a statement issued by Warner Music. “We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”
Led Zeppelin’s win comes amid an uptick in lawsuits over allegedly stolen songs following last year’s surprise verdict by a Los Angeles jury that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s 2013 mega-hit “Blurred Lines” infringed Marvin Gaye’s 1977 single “Got to Give It Up.” Gaye’s heirs won a $7.4 million award at trial -- later reduced by the judge to about $5.3 million and now on appeal. This year, singers Kanye West, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran have been sued for alleged copyright violations.
The lawsuit was brought by the trust of the late Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, who wrote “Taurus" for his girlfriend. Wolfe never filed an infringement lawsuit and Led Zeppelin argued that the trust didn’t own the rights to the song, which instead belong to the publisher under a 1967 agreement.
The trust’s lawyer said the trust had a fiduciary duty to pursue its claim following a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows for copyright infringement lawsuits after years of delay.
The case is Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, 15-cv-03462, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).
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