In the closely watched trial to determine whether rock behemoth Led Zeppelin stole another band’s music for its iconic hit “Stairway to Heaven,” two music experts Thursday suggested similarities exist between the two songs while Zeppelin guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Page continued to deny allegations of theft.
The third day of the high-stakes copyright trial played out in a downtown federal courtroom as Francis Malofiy, the attorney representing the estate of singer Randy Wolfe, continued to try to build a case that Page and Zeppelin singer Robert Plant lifted parts of Wolfe’s song “Taurus” for the famous acoustic opening of “Stairway.”
Wolfe was the guitarist and singer for Spirit, a Los Angeles band that built a considerable following in the late 1960s and 1970s before largely fading into obscurity.
Page sparred for two hours with Malofiy, a carry-over from Wednesday when the lawyer called the 72-year-old, white-haired rock star to the stand. In sometimes sharp exchanges, Malofiy tried, largely in vain, to extract incriminating concessions from Page.
Trying to sidestep repeated objections from Zeppelin’s attorneys and increasingly impatient admonitions from U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner for out-of-bounds questions, Malofiy delved into the minutiae of the musical composition of “Stairway” in an effort to show similarities to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying,” Page responded brusquely, when Malofiy asked with a clear note of sarcasm whether it was true Page couldn’t estimate the tempo of “Stairway.”
Klausner thwarted much of the inquiry because Page was not designated as a musical expert in the case and so was not permitted to give his opinion on the structure of either song.
The judge also shut down repeated attempts by Malofiy to introduce elements of “Taurus” included in recordings of the song. Only the sheet music filed with the U.S. Copyright Office is at question in the trial.
Malofiy questioned Page about whether he ever met Wolfe, who died in 1997. Page said that he never met the Spirit guitarist and songwriter nor attended the group’s live performances.
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.
At issue is whether members of Led Zeppelin had sufficient opportunity to hear “Taurus” to conceivably rip it off and whether the two songs meet a legal threshold of “substantial similarity,” a phrase Malofiy returned to repeatedly Thursday while questioning his two expert witnesses. Those witnesses told jurors they believed the structure of “Taurus” and “Stairway” shared too many similarities to be unintentional.
Alexander Stewart, a professor at the University of Vermont, testified that the chord progression and note pairings in “Taurus,” along with other characteristics of the song, are mirrored in “Stairway.”
Under cross examination, Stewart conceded that individual elements common to “Taurus” and “Stairway” appear in other songs and are not unique “in isolation.” But he stressed that when common elements are combined in new ways “they can rise to the level of being protectable” under copyright law.
Page carried a guitar case into the courtroom for a second day on Thursday, but so far, he has not been called on to play it. Additionally, a full-size electronic keyboard was wheeled into the courtroom before proceedings began, but it has not been played either. Plant sat quietly and attentively next to Page at the defense table, when the guitarist was not on the stand. Plant has not yet been called to testify.
Michael Skidmore, the trustee of Wolfe’s estate, began his testimony at the end of the day. He is expected to continue Friday.
7:37 p.m.: This article has been revised throughout for additional details and for clarity.
This article originally posted at 2:03 p.m.