Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page disputes allegations that famous ‘Stairway to Heaven’ riff was a rip-off
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page took the stand in a copyright lawsuit Wednesday, defending himself against allegations he ripped off the famous opening guitar chords from the band’s epic hit “Stairway to Heaven.”
Page, his white hair pulled back in a ponytail, testified he had not heard “Taurus,” the song by the band Spirit he is accused of copying, until after he learned in recent years of online postings that made note of the alleged similarities.
“I knew I had never heard that before,” Page said of “Taurus” in a downtown courtroom packed with journalists, fans and curious onlookers. “It was so unusual I know I would have remembered hearing it.”
Under questioning from Francis Malofiy, the attorney representing the estate of Spirit front man Randy Wolfe, Page conceded a copy of the album containing “Taurus” was in his record collection. He insisted he discovered the LP among his collection of more than 4,300 albums during a search he did after learning of the online comparisons between the two songs. He said he had no recollection of how he got the album.
Page testified during the second day of the high-stakes copyright case, in which he and Zeppelin singer Robert Plant are accused of nicking “Stairway’s” indelible opening passage. The guitar riffs evoke centuries-old folk music as does “Taurus,” an instrumental song Wolfe wrote for his band’s first album in 1968, a few years before Page penned the music for “Stairway.”
Prior to calling Page to the stand, Malofiy tried to establish that members of Led Zeppelin had crossed paths with Spirit repeatedly at music festivals in the late 1960s and had ample opportunity to hear the Los Angeles band play “Taurus.”
Malofiy, who was admonished several times by U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner for asking irrelevant or otherwise inappropriate questions, led two former members of Spirit through testimony about festivals at which both bands shared billing in the 1960s and 70s. He pressed them for their recollections of whether Led Zeppelin may have watched their performances.
Former Spirit bassist Mark Andes said he recalled seeing Zeppelin members at some festivals. But under cross examination by an attorney for Zeppelin, he acknowledged he couldn’t recall a particular show at which Spirit definitely played “Taurus” and Zeppelin was watching.
Andes also recounted hanging out after a 1970 show in Birmingham, England, with Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant, learning to play snooker. In a video deposition played for the jury, an English fan recalled hitchhiking several hours from Bath to Birmingham to see Spirit at the same show.
He said he recalled vividly seeing Plant at the show in the front row watching Spirit perform.
“He was enjoying himself,” self-proclaimed Spirit fan Michael Ware testified.
Peter Anderson, one of Zeppelin’s attorneys, told jurors Tuesday in his opening statement that the similarity between the songs is nothing more than coincidence between musicians working in a field rooted in commonly used and reused musical ideas.
Anderson challenged Malofiy’s claim that Plant and lead guitarist Jimmy Page heard Spirit perform their song when the two bands shared the bill at several music festivals.
When Page and Plant arrived to the courtroom in the morning with an escort of private bodyguards and uniformed police, Page carried a guitar case. The sight raised the prospect he might play as part of his testimony. That did not happen Wednesday, although it is possible he may if he’s called by his own attorneys to testify later in the case.
A loss for Led Zeppelin could mean millions of dollars in royalties going to the estate of Wolfe, a.k.a. Randy California, for one of the most recognized and played recordings of the rock era. Wolfe died in 1997.
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.
Klausner has allotted a maximum of 10 hours for each side to make its case before the four-man, four-woman jury, which will be asked to decide whether “Stairway to Heaven” bears “substantial similarity,” the legal threshold at issue in the trial, with Spirit’s “Taurus.”
The case is moving forward 45 years after “Stairway to Heaven” was released, after a 2014 Supreme Court ruling that new iterations of creative work, such as home video reissues, could be subject to legal action over copyright infringement claims.
That ruling is behind the Wolfe estate’s decision to seek damages triggered from a 2014 reissue of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, commonly referred to as “Led Zeppelin IV,” the album containing “Stairway to Heaven.”
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