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Led Zeppelin has beaten a lawsuit claiming that the iconic guitar riff in “Stairway to Heaven” was copied from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.”
On Thursday, after a week’s worth of testimony and arguments, the jury came back with its verdict in a case that’s been decades in the making. At trial, Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant testified as well as Michael Skidmore, the Trustee of Spirit songwriter Randy Wolfe’s estate, who demanded in his lawsuit a rewriting of rock ‘n’ roll history. The jury also heard from a Spirit bandmember, musicologists and other witnesses and experts opining on such subjects as whether Led Zeppelin had heard “Taurus” before composing their popular song and whether the two songs were substantially similar.
In his lifetime, Wolfe never sued and was ambivalent about doing so upon questions from those who pointed out similarities. After the songwriter died in 1997, Skidmore asserted an ownership interest in copyrighted sheet music and was able to push the case to trial despite decades of inaction and non-cooperation from Hollenbeck Music, the publishing company that had signed Wolfe (performing as Randy California) in the 1960s as a teenager who was discovered by Jimi Hendrix.
Both Page and Plant, who denied having access to “Taurus” despite performing concerts with Spirit decades ago, were on hand to hear the reading of the verdict. In his testimony, Page rejected the notion put forth by plaintiff attorney Francis Malofiy that the songs were too similar to be coincidental. Page did, however, alter the official story of how “Stairway” was created in 1970, puncturing the mythology that he holed himself up in a remote cottage in Wales called Bron-Yr-Aur, where he wrote the tune by fireside.
Ultimately, with tens of millions of dollars in recent profits from the song’s continued exploitation on the line, the jury after less than a day of deliberation decided in favor of Led Zeppelin and various subsidiaries of Warner Music.
The jury — eight California citizens — delivered its verdict that the plaintiff owned the copyright to “Taurus” and that Led Zeppelin members indeed heard the song, but that there was no substantial similarity in the extrinsic elements of “Taurus” and “Stairway.” The decision came after the jury took one last listen of both songs. Within a half hour of doing so, the jury had made up its mind.
If the multimillion-dollar “Blurred Lines” verdict showed that artists can cross the line in being inspired, this latest decision shows that for whatever similarities lay observers spot, there’s still ample room for artists to be cleared of song theft.
The defense team was led by attorney Peter J. Anderson.
Malofiy told reporters he would be looking into an appeal. He didn’t specify the grounds for doing so, but it could pertain to U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner not allowing the playing of certain “Taurus” recordings as the copyright was limited to the sheet music deposited with the U.S. Copyright Office.
After the verdict, Page and Plant put out a joint statement. “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. “We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”
Warner Music also cheered the outcome: “At Warner Music Group, 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.”
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To Kill a Mockingbird