(Photo: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
Led Zeppelin have won a copyright lawsuit that claimed they had plagiarized the music to their most celebrated song, “Stairway to Heaven.” A Los Angeles jury determined Thursday that the lawyer representing the estate of late guitarist Randy Wolfe, who played with the group Spirit, did not prove that the hard rockers lifted the song’s intro from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.”
The lawsuit stemmed from a 2014 filing alleging that because Led Zeppelin had appeared on the same bill as Spirit in the early stage of in their career, they would have been aware of the song “Taurus” and would have subsequently copied it. The track – penned by California, a guitarist whose real name was Randy Wolfe and who died in 1997 – appeared on Spirit’s 1968 self-titled debut and contains two minutes and 38 seconds’ worth of cinematic, psych-folk mysticism. The track features an acoustic guitar line playing a pensive melody that transforms into a descending chromatic pattern. A lawyer representing California’s estate, now repped by British former music journalist Michael Skidmore, claimed that Led Zeppelin’s trippy, acoustic guitar intro to “Stairway” had borrowed heavily from “Taurus.”
The trial quickly became a colorful, contentious battle between the two sides right from the start. Attorney Francis Malofiy, who represented Skidmore, carried a briefcase that resembled a Fender amp and played fast and loose with courtroom protocol. He attempted to play videos that weren’t admitted into evidence (a possible basis for mistrial), conducted exasperating testimony that both the judge and defense found objection-worthy (the judge yelled “sustained” at one point before the defense could even object) and referred to Jimmy Page as the “alleged songwriter” of “Stairway.”
“You’re wasting a lot of time,” the judge told Malofiy at a point where the lawyer was attempting to claim that the Mary Poppins song “Chim Chim Cheree” was a possible influence on Page. In his closing statements, Malofiy said that the case was about giving credit where it’s due, blasted Page and Plant’s “selective memory” during testimony and, in perhaps his oddest move, reminded the jury that he needed to prove his case by only “51 percent” in order to win.
The jury was not legally allowed to hear the original recordings of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” in determining their verdict. Instead, they heard an expert perform both songs based on the original sheet music.
Led Zeppelin attorney Peter Anderson kept a cooler demeanor. He argued that the Wolfe Trust did not own the copyright to the song (a claim the judge shot down) and that the musical characteristics Malofiy claimed Zeppelin copied were musical traditions that date back at least to the 1600s and appeared in songs like the Beatles’ “Michelle.”
In testimony, Page was charming, witty, candid and sarcastic, offering rejoinders to Malofiy’s observations (when the lawyer said Page discovered he had the ability to play guitar in his youth, Page said, “Well, yeah.”) Both Page and Plant testified they did not remember ever hearing “Taurus.” Anderson made an ugly misstep during cross-examination with Skidmore when he accused Wolfe's mother as having an "illegitimate son" that was cut out of royalties. He also brought in a musicologist as a witness who spoke too academically and compared “Stairway” to the obscure “To Catch a Shad” by the Modern Folk Quartet.
Anderson closed his arguments by saying that Malofiy had not proved the case and that Spirit’s music “would not even be remembered.” It marked the end of a particularly combative trial. Before the judge called for the jury to deliberate he asked of the attorneys, “Any other catfights?”
Bloomberg reported in April that if Wolfe’s estate were to win, they’d be entitled to a share of “Stairway to Heaven” revenue for only the three years before the lawsuit was filed, due to copyright law. The estate would also be entitled to royalties going forward.
Malofiy filed his original complaint against Led Zeppelin, on behalf of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, in May 2014. He stylized section headers in the font the group used on its untitled fourth album – home to “Stairway to Heaven” – and claimed that Led Zeppelin had become influenced by Wolfe and Spirit’s performances after sharing a bill with them. Led Zeppelin would perform on the same bill as Spirit that year, at a gig where Malofiy claimed Spirit played “Taurus,” and again in 1969.
In his “Preamble,” the lawyer asserted that Led Zeppelin began performing Spirit’s “Fresh-Garbage” – a track on the same record as “Taurus” – at concerts, and that Page and Plant composed “Stairway to Heaven” a year after touring with Spirit. Malofiy also included a chart of Led Zeppelin songs he claimed infringed upon other songwriters’ works. He claimed that Led Zeppelin had knowingly and willfully infringed on “Taurus” with “Stairway to Heaven.”
But in a 1991 interview not mentioned in the complaint, Wolfe described Led Zeppelin’s members as fans of Spirit in the late Sixties and that “if they wanted to use [‘Taurus’], that’s fine. … I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of ‘Taurus’ for their song without a lawsuit.” Malofiy later told Rolling Stone he believed that statement was “out of context.”
In 1996, the year before his death, Wolfe told an interviewer he felt “Stairway” was a “ripoff” of “Taurus.” Malofiy used the following statement in the complaint: “The guys made millions of bucks on it and never said, ‘Thank you,’ never said, 'Can we pay you some money for it?’” Wolfe said. “It’s kind of a sore point with me. Maybe someday their conscience will make them do something about it. I don’t know. There are funny business dealings between record companies, managers, publishers and artists. But when artists do it to other artists, there’s no excuse for that. I’m mad!”
Wolfe drowned in 1997 while rescuing his son from a rip current in Hawaii, according to Bloomberg. His mother established the trust in his name, which purchases musical instruments for public schools, and, after she died in 2009, she passed it along to the suit’s plaintiff, Michael Skidmore, who had assisted her in managing the trust. After teaming with Malofiy, he sued for copyright infringement in various forms and for “falsification of rock & roll history” (Wolfe’s alleged right of attribution). He sought the defendants’ profits, various forms of damages (including “exemplary damages to set an example for others”) and an injunction on selling the recording and attorney’s fees, among other “claims for relief.”
Malofiy told Bloomberg he felt the lawsuit was worth around $40 million.
“This is ridiculous,” Jimmy Page said of the lawsuit that month. “I have no further comment on the subject.”
Led Zeppelin would later allege that the Trust did not even own the copyright to the song. They claimed that Wolfe's son, whom he saved at the time of his death, did, though the judge in the trial nullified that argument.
The suit quickly became a cause célèbre in the music industry, as it is the most high-profile copyright case to follow the estate of Marvin Gaye’s victory over Robin Thicke in the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit last year. In that case, Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay $7.4 million (later reduced to $5.3 million) to the Gayes after a jury ruled that the song infringed on the vibe of Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Lawyer Donald S. Passman told The New York Times that the Gaye ruling was “aberrational” and would not have any long-term effects.
It was determined in April of this year that the case would go to trial. Led Zeppelin’s lawyer had asked U.S. District Court Judge Gary Klausner to rule in their favor without a trial in February, but the judge decided the songs were similar enough to warrant one. Although he wrote that Malofiy had not convinced him of Led Zeppelin’s alleged infringement, the judge said that the “similarities [between the songs] transcend this core structure” and that what would remain is a “subjective assessment of the 'concept and feel’ of two works.”
What would occur over the coming months would become an epic story all its own.
Malofiy said at the time that any kind of settlement on behalf of Led Zeppelin would be a “nonstarter.” But later that month, he told Bloomberg he’d take a settlement of a dollar and a songwriting credit. The band did not take him up on the offer.
Page and Plant filed declarations to the court in March, before Klausner decided the suit should go to trial, in which they described how they wrote the song. Page wrote that while “Stairway” opened with “descending chromatic lines,” as did “Taurus,” he’d been aware of that melodic style dating back at least to 1960. Moreover, he stated that he never heard the song until 2014 when Malofiy filed his complaint. “I am very good at remembering music and am absolutely certain that I never heard 'Taurus’ until 2014,” he wrote. He also wrote that he did not recall ever seeing Spirit live.
Page has always maintained in interviews that he wrote the song from piecing together his own melodic ideas. “I’d been fooling around with my acoustic guitar and came up with different sections, which I married together,” he once told Guitar World. “But what I wanted was something that would have drums come in at the middle and then build to a huge crescendo. … So I had the structure of it.”
Interestingly, in his declaration, Page wrote that he discovered a copy of the Spirit LP in his record collection in preparation for the trial. “[I] do not know how or when it got there,” he wrote. “It may well have been left by a guest. I doubt it was there for long, since I never noticed it before. But again I know I did not hear 'Taurus’ until 2014.”
Plant, too, wrote that he believed he never heard “Taurus” before the lawsuit. “I do not now and have never owned a Spirit record album,” he wrote.
In April, Judge Klausner rejected all of Malofiy’s expert witnesses because they had prepared opinions based on sound recordings that weren’t admissible under copyright law. He also barred recordings of some songs that the attorney wished to present, saying that recordings of songs had to be made from existing sheet music. The judge gave Malofiy time to find more witnesses.
The judge also ruled that anything regarding Led Zeppelin’s alleged plagiarism in the past would not be allowed before a jury. Rumors about the group’s drug and alcohol use would not be allowed either; Malofiy had hoped to claim that the band’s substance abuse damaged the songwriters’ memories.
In May, Led Zeppelin accused Malofiy of attempting to “taint the jury pool” by claiming that the band’s members would not appear in court. Page and Plant always intended to appear in court, the lawyers claimed. “[Malofiy’s] ongoing efforts to try this case in the press should be rejected,” they said in a motion.
Earlier this month, Malofiy filed a motion to make Plant, Page and Jones appear in court on the first day of the proceedings, making it so that if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be allowed to testify. Judge Klausner denied the motion.
The day before the trial was to begin, Malofiy filed a motion claiming that one of Led Zeppelin’s experts, musicologist Lawrence Ferrara, had engaged in a conflict of interest by working with the group. Previously, he’d provided comparative analysis of “Taurus” and “Stairway” to the publisher of “Taurus,” with whom Malofiy says he had conspired with to undermine the lawsuit. Ultimately, the judge allowed Ferrara to testify, signaling the beginning of what became a turbulent trial.
In 1975, Page told Rolling Stone he felt “Stairway” “crystalized the essence of the band.” “It had everything there and showed the band at its best … as a band, as a unit,” he said. “We were careful never to release it as a single. It was a milestone for us. Every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time and I guess we did it with 'Stairway.’”