Thursday’s verdict for Led Zeppelin in the copyright trial over the 1971 hit song “Stairway to Heaven” reaffirms the creative rights of songwriters while demonstrating the difficulties in pursuing infringement over sheet music, according to legal experts following the case.
The jury’s decision followed a highly publicized trial that featured testimonies from Led Zeppelin band members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page about the origins of “Stairway to Heaven.” The case was brought by the trustee for the estate of Randy Craig Wolfe, known professionally as Randy California, which alleged in a 2014 lawsuit that Led Zeppelin ripped off “Taurus,” a song from California’s band, Spirit, in writing the first two minutes and 37 seconds of “Stairway to Heaven.”
Legal experts said the jury’s finding turned the tables back in favor of musical artists after last year’s $7.4 million verdict over the 2013 hit “Blurred Lines.”
“Page and Plant’s victory is sweet music to the creative community and signifies a U-turn away from the dissonant clash of the Blurred Lines verdict,” said William Hochberg of Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger, who isn’t involved in the case.
The trial, which featured testimony from a host of musicologists, focused on whether Plant and Page had enough access to “Taurus” to have copied it and whether the songs were “substantially similar.” Jurors found that the trustee owned the 1967 copyright to “Taurus,” which Led Zeppelin had disputed, and that Plant and Page had heard the song prior to the release of “Stairway to Heaven,” according to the jury verdict sheet.
Both Plant and Page had testified that they didn’t remember meeting Spirit’s band members or hearing “Taurus.” But jurors concluded that the songs had no “substantial similarity.”
The trustee’s lawyer, Francis Malofiy of Francis Alexander in Media, Pennsylvania, said in an emailed statement that Led Zeppelin “won on a technicality.”
“It is important to realize, however, that the jury agreed very clearly with Plaintiff that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had access to Taurus, and discounted their denials that they had never heard Taurus before,” he wrote. “For Led Zeppelin, the case was about their legacy and reputation; for Randy California it was about credit. In this regard, neither party won.”
Page and Plant said in a statement issued through Warner Music Group: “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.” Warner Music Group, whose three subsidiaries were named in the case, also issued a statement that “supporting our artists and protecting their creative freedom is paramount.”
Hochberg said the jury could have been convinced that Wolfe “didn’t invent the A minor chord with a descending bass line” found in both songs.
Another big issue might have been the trustee’s inability to play the actual sound recording of “Taurus,” said J. Michael Keyes, a partner in Dorsey & Whitney’s Seattle office, who posted about the verdict on his firm’s blog, TheTMCA.com.
The case dealt with music that was copyrighted prior to the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976. That meant the copyright was for the original sheet music of “Taurus.”
“The substantial-similarity analysis would be the sound recording of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ versus the sheet music to ‘Taurus,’” Keyes said. “That’s what the jury ultimately was instructed to compare.”
In his statement, Malofiy agreed that the verdict was largely determined by the judge’s decision not to allow him to play the album recording of “Taurus,” which was in Page’s record collection. Such a ruling “tied our hands behind our back” and was not “legally correct or logically sound,” he wrote.
“In essence, this case was tried in an alternate reality,” he added. “The jury never heard the album recording of ‘Taurus’ that Jimmy Page heard and used to create ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Instead it heard a very basic piece of sheet music that no one, including Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, had ever seen. It was an artificial comparison that bore little relation to the reality of the claim.”
Contact Amanda Bronstad at firstname.lastname@example.org.