The legal battle over one of rock music’s most monumental ballads got underway Tuesday as the famous opening guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” filled a downtown courtroom and members of the iconic band looked to defend themselves against allegations they lifted the music from another group.
In their opening statements, attorneys for the two sides offered jurors sharply different views of the 1971 hit that helped catapult Led Zeppelin into rock stardom.
Francis Malofiy, the lawyer representing the estate of singer Randy Wolfe, claimed the opening of “Stairway” closely mimics parts of “Taurus,” a song Wolfe wrote and played with his band Spirit. Experts, Malofiy said, would show how the musical structure of “Stairway” mirrors a unique construction used in “Taurus.”
“This case can be summed up in six words: Give credit where credit is due,” Malofiy told jurors.
But an attorney for Zeppelin’s front man, Robert Plant, and lead guitarist, Jimmy Page, said any similarities were because the two songs both relied on “basic musical devices that are completely commonplace” and found in songs dating back centuries.
He also challenged Malofiy’s claim that Page and Plant heard Spirit perform their song when the two bands shared the bill at several music festivals.
Page and Plant both sat with solemn expressions and their long hair pulled back in ponytails.
During breaks, the rock stars were escorted from the courtroom and ushered down a side exit by private security who kept inquisitive journalists and fans seeking handshakes at bay.
At issue is whether the British band nicked “Stairway’s” famous opening passage, which evokes centuries-old Renaissance folk music, from L.A. rock outfit Spirit. The two bands shared some concert billings in the late 1960s when Led Zeppelin was in its infancy.
A loss for Led Zeppelin could mean millions of dollars in royalties going to the estate of Spirit guitarist and songwriter Randy Craig Wolfe, a.k.a. Randy California, for one of the most recognized and played recordings of the rock era.
It’s the highest-profile infringement case since last year’s suit in which R&B-soul singer Marvin Gaye’s family 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.
The common ground between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” largely comes down to a 10-second musical theme that appears 45 seconds into “Taurus,” an instrumental from the band’s 1968 debut album. That song was released three years before “Stairway to Heaven” surfaced on Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, commonly referred to as “Led Zeppelin IV.”
Peter Anderson, one of Zeppelin’s attorneys, told jurors Monday the similarity is nothing more than coincidence between musicians working in a field rooted in commonly used and reused musical ideas.
Page and Plant, along with John Paul Jones, the other surviving member of the band, are all included as witnesses in court filings and are expected to testify. The judge has dismissed Jones as a plaintiff.
The case is being closely monitored in the music business because it involves not only one of the most recognizable songs in the rock repertoire, but also one of the most lucrative. In 2008, Conde Nast’s Portfolio estimated that “Stairway to Heaven” had generated $562 million in publishing royalties and record sales since its release.
If jurors ultimately side with Wolfe, who died in 1997, his estate would be eligible to receive revenues earned by the song only during a recent 3-year period, according to copyright law.
The panel must decide whether members of Led Zeppelin heard the song played enough times to conceivably rip it off, and whether the two songs meet a legal threshold of “substantial similarity.”
In an effort to emphasize the differences between the two songs, Anderson played a recording of the minimalist, copyrighted version of “Taurus” and the first two minutes of “Stairway” during his opening statements.
For his first witnesses, Malofiy called Wolfe’s sister and a former band mate in an attempt to prove that Wolfe wrote “Taurus” in 1966, a year before he signed a contract with a music company. The timing is important, because Zeppelin’s legal team plans to argue the rights of “Taurus” belong to the music company, not Wolfe’s estate.