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 riff 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 Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant took the stand to rebuff the claim of thievery and tell how they wrote their most famous song nearly half a century ago.
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. Although largely forgotten today, Spirit 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.
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.
He said that it wasn’t a fair fight and that “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 to Heaven.”
Jurors rejected the claim of plagiarism. 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 Led 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 both songs 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 Led Zeppelin defense with Peter Anderson, said “we were confident that if people listened to the music they would find it was original.”
The verdict was a departure from another high-profile infringement case last year in which the family of R&B-soul singer Marvin Gaye was awarded $7.4 million by a jury that decided pop stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ monster hit “Blurred Lines” had infringed on Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” A judge later reduced the award to $5.3 million.
Much of the “Stairway to Heaven” trial hinged on two legal questions: Was it plausible that members of Led Zeppelin had sufficient opportunities to hear “Taurus” played, and, if so, was the opening of “Stairway to Heaven” 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.
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 Led 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 disputed musical ground at issue 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 to Heaven,” which was released in 1971, three years after “Taurus.”