After one of the most talked-about music business court cases of recent years, Led Zeppelin have been cleared of basing the descending chord sequence heard at the beginning of Stairway To Heaven on Spirit’s 1968 track Taurus.
Spirit’s Randy California mentioned the two songs’ similarity in the liner notes for the 1996 reissue of Spirit’s first album, but it wasn’t until May 2014 that the band’s bass player, Mark Andes, filed legal papers in Pennsylvania in an attempt to stop the re-release of the track as part of Led Zeppelin’s remaster series, asking that California receive a co-writing credit and appropriate payment.
In October of that year a judge ruled that the action could go ahead, and in May 2015 lawyers for Led Zeppelin responded, filing papers in California that refuted the accusation of copyright breach and claimed that the band didn’t have enough knowledge of the case to answer it. In February of this year Jimmy Page stated in a court declaration that he hadn’t heard Taurus until 2014, but two months later a judge ruled that both Page and Robert Plant would face a jury trial. A date was set for May 10, but Los Angeles federal judge Gary Klausner delayed the start until June 14, when the trial began in a federal courtroom in Los Angeles.
This is how it played out…
The trial opens with both Page and Plant present. A 10 hour limit has been imposed by Judge Gary Klausner, meaning it will last a maximum of three or four days.
Francis Malofiy, the lawyer representing the estate of late Spirit guitarist Randy California says in his opening statement that the case comes down to six words: “Give credit where credit is due.”
Led Zeppelin’s representative, Peter Anderson, counters that: “45 years ago Jimmy Page and Robert Plant wrote some of the greatest songs in rock’n’roll history – half a century later they’re being sued for it.”
Neither Page nor Plant speaks during the hearing.
Page arrives at the court house carrying a guitar case, in anticipation of having to play for the judge and jury (in the end he doesn’t).
In the witness stand, he admits to owning several Spirit albums. He tells the court that his son-in-law brought the comparison to his attention a few years ago: “When I heard the orchestral part at the beginning I knew I’d never heard it before. When it started I was confused by the comparison: ‘What’s this got to do with Stairway?’”
Asked about a concert in 1969 where Led Zeppelin opened for Vanilla Fudge and Spirit, he says he hadn’t known that the latter were on the bill, though he agrees that Zeppelin had regularly performed a section of Spirit’s Fresh–Garbage, which appears alongside Taurus on their debut album.
Questioned about an interview in which he was quoted saying, “Spirit is a band I really love,” Page replies: “I don’t remember. It could be distorted – in those days they still sort of jotted things down on notepads.”
Page takes the witness stand to testify again, arguing that the chord sequence “has been around for ever”. Musician Kevin Hanson, who is called as an expert witness, counters that “to my ear [Taurus and Stairway To Heaven] sound like one piece of music.”
Spirit’s lawyer, Francis Malofiy, is reprimanded by the judge, who tells him, “You’re wasting a lot of time”, after attempting to produce evidence that isn’t on the court’s list of exhibits.
It is revealed that in 2015 the members of Led Zeppelin shared out more than £6.6 million from royalty payments acrued by the band’s catalogue.
Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones makes a brief appearance in the witness stand, saying that Page had never discussed Taurus with him.
Music expert Lawrence Ferrara plays an electric piano to demonstrate that the similarities between Stairway To Heaven and Taurus were “absolutely meaningless.”
He points out that the descending chord sequence at the beginning of Stairway has “been around for 300 years… they are a musical building block that no one can possibly own.”
It is revealed that Zeppelin’s back catalogue earned more than $60 million between 2011 and 2014.
- Jimmy Page: ‘How Led Zeppelin made Stairway To Heaven’ – video interview
- The Making of Led Zeppelin I
- Swan Song: the secret history of Led Zeppelin’s lost masterpiece
- The Top 10 greatest Led Zeppelin John Bonham songs
After a break for the weekend, Page and Plant’s team ask the judge to halt proceedings and make a decision without consulting the jury, arguing that Francis Malofiy has failed to present sufficient evidence to support his position or prove that any member of Led Zeppelin had heard Taurus before composing Stairway. The motion is rejected and the trial proceeds.
Robert Plant takes the witness stand for the first time. He causes laughter in the courthouse when, asked if hung out with Spirit after a concert in 1970, he replied: “I don’t have a recollection of almost anyone I’ve hung out with.”
However, he does say that he clearly remembers working on Stairway To Heaven with Page at Headley Grange in Hampshire.
The jury retires to consider their verdict, though not before a heated exchange between the two parties’ lawyers.
“We respect and value creation,” says Francis Malofiy. “‘Creation’ does not mean copying. ‘Creation’ means doing something that is unique and memorable.” He asks the eight-person jury to grant one-third of writing credits for Stairway To Heaven to California’s estate.
Peter Anderson argues that Malofiy had failed to prove that Page or Plant had ever heard the earlier work, saying: “There has been no evidence showing that Taurus was performed at any performance where members of Led Zeppelin were in attendance.” He adds that Malofiy had exaggerated the amount of money Stairway had generated.
Both are admonished by the judge, who says: “Any other catfights or anything else?”
The jury decides that Zeppelin did not plaigiarse Taurus, ruling that it is not “intrinsically similar” to Stairway To Heaven’s opening. Page and Plant have been cleared of the charge of plaigarism.
The pair issue a joint statement: “We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favour, putting to rest questions about the origins of Stairway To Heaven and confirming what we have known for 45 years.”
The biggest music trial of recent times is over, and Led Zeppelin have emerged victorious. The long term impact– good or bad – on the music industry remains to be seen.