Jury sides with Led Zeppelin in copyright trial over 'Stairway to Heaven'

- A federal jury today 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 instrumental "Taurus."

The jury declined to award any damages, ending the legal battle that turned into a spectacle in downtown Los Angeles, 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 Robert 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."

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.

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The Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven trial can get confusing. FOX 11's Zohreen Adamjee broke down some FAQs about the trial with music copyright expert Steven Weinberg, who has worked on similar cases before. She asked him simplify some of the complicated legal concepts at issue.

WHO IS THE PERSON SUING LED ZEPPELIN?

His name is Michael Skidmore; he’s a representative of the estate of Randy Wolfe aka Randy California, the Spirit band member and author of the songTaurus.

WHY IS MICHAEL SKIDMORE SUING LED ZEPPELIN NOW — DOES IT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE ROBIN THICKE BLURRED LINES CASE?

No. It’s because in 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case which permits claims like this to be brought as long as there’s continuing infringement. The entire Led Zeppelin catalogue was recently re-released, so there’s a renewed interest in it, which means a sales spike.

WHY CAN’T THE JURY JUST COMPARE THE TWO AUDIO RECORDINGS AND CALL IT A DAY?

The original copyright in 1967 only covers sheet music. During that time, audio recordings were not covered and therefore not deposited with the Library of Congress. Sound recordings weren’t protected until 1978.

LED ZEPPELIN HAS SETTLED LAWSUITS BEFORE, WHY ARE THEY TAKING THIS ONE TO TRIAL?

I think they felt they had strong defenses in this case, together with the fact that this song defines the essence of Led Zeppelin as a band and recording artist.

WHAT DOES MICHAEL SKIDMORE’S SIDE HAVE TO PROVE?

Two things: one is that Led Zeppelin were exposed to Spirit’s composition that is claimed to be used for the intro to Stairway (access) and substantial similarity in the two works.

HOW MUCH MONEY IS AT STAKE?

Only money earned for Stairway to Heaven since 2011, because the statute of limitations for copyright filings is three years. A fraction of $2 million if you’re going by the defense’s calculations. Far more if you’re going by the plaintiff’s side but the numbers weren’t broken down clearly. They’d also get future royalties. Let’s not forget, the biggest prize is partial credit in arguably one of music’s most iconic songs.

WHO GETS THE MONEY IF LED ZEPPELIN LOSES.

It would go Randy California’s trust.

HOW MUCH DOES MICHAEL SKIDMORE PERSONALLY GET?

Nothing directly

SO THEN WHY IS HE BRINGING THE CASE FORWARD?

According to the plaintiff’s lawyer they “want credit where credit is due” Also, the trust earns money. Skidmore could get increased trustee fees based upon the amount of money in the trust.

WHAT DOES OUTCOME OF TRIAL MEAN FOR THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

If Skidmore wins, it could expose more artists to similar claims.

LED ZEPPELIN’S FROM BRITAIN, WHY IS THE TRIAL IN CALIFORNIA?

It started in Pennsylvania because plaintiff’s lawyer is from there. But the band had “insufficient contacts” with Pennsylvania for the court to have jurisdiction over British subjects. They had stronger ties and contacts in Los Angeles, which would subject them to jurisdiction here.

WHY IS THIS CASE IN A FEDERAL COURT?

Copyright claims typically must be brought in federal courts.

WHY HAVE JIMMY PAGE AND ROBERT PLANT BEEN IN COURT EVERY DAY?

They were named as defendants, they legally have to be.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER A VERDICT IS ANNOUNCED?

The losing side will likely appeal. If that happens, this case will continue to travel through the court system for another three years.

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Plaintiff's attorney Francis 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 1968 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, defense attorney Peter 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.

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