Led Zeppelin have won a copyright lawsuit that claimed they had plagiarized the music to their most celebrated song, “Stairway to Heaven.” A Los Angeles jury determined Thursday that the lawyer representing the estate of late guitarist Randy Wolfe, who played with the group Spirit, did not prove that the hard rockers lifted the song’s intro from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.”
“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,” members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant said in a statement. ” We appreciate our fans’ support and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.”
“At Warner Music Group, supporting our artists and protecting their creative freedom is paramount,” the band’s record label added in a statement. “We are pleased that the jury found in favor of Led Zeppelin, reaffirming the true origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest bands in history, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are peerless songwriters who created many of rock’s most influential and enduring songs.”
The lawsuit stemmed from a 2014 filing alleging that because Led Zeppelin had appeared on the same bill as Spirit in the early stage of their career, they would have been aware of the song “Taurus” and would have subsequently copied it. The track – penned by Wolfe as Randy California – appeared on Spirit’s 1968 self-titled debut and contains two minutes and 38 seconds’ worth of cinematic, psych-folk mysticism. The track features an acoustic guitar line playing a pensive melody that transforms into a descending chromatic pattern. A lawyer representing California’s estate, now repped by British former music journalist Michael Skidmore, claimed that Led Zeppelin’s trippy, acoustic guitar intro to “Stairway” had borrowed heavily from “Taurus.”
The trial quickly became a colorful, contentious battle between the two sides from the start. Attorney Francis Malofiy, who represented Skidmore, carried a briefcase that resembled a Fender amp and played fast and loose with courtroom protocol. He attempted to play videos that weren’t admitted into evidence (a possible basis for mistrial), conducted exasperating testimony that both the judge and defense found objection-worthy (the judge yelled “sustained” at one point before the defense could even object) and referred to Jimmy Page as the “alleged songwriter” of “Stairway.”
“You’re wasting a lot of time,” the judge told Malofiy at a point where the lawyer was attempting to claim that the Mary Poppins song “Chim Chim Cheree” was a possible influence on Page. In his closing statement, Malofiy said that the case was about giving credit where it’s due, blasted Page and Plant’s “selective memory” during testimony and reminded the jury that he needed to prove his case by only “51 percent” in order to win.
The jury was not legally allowed to hear the original recordings of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” in determining their verdict. Instead, they heard an expert perform both songs based on the original sheet music.
Led Zeppelin attorney Peter Anderson kept a cooler demeanor. He argued that the Wolfe Trust did not own the copyright to the song (a claim the judge shot down) and that the musical characteristics Malofiy claimed Zeppelin copied were musical traditions that date back at least to the 1600s and appeared in songs like the Beatles’ “Michelle.”
In testimony, Page was charming, witty, candid and sarcastic, offering rejoinders to Malofiy’s observations (when the lawyer said Page discovered he had the ability to play guitar in his youth, Page said, “Well, yeah.”) Both Page and Plant testified they did not remember ever hearing “Taurus.” Anderson made an ugly misstep during cross-examination with Skidmore when he accused Wolfe’s mother as having an “illegitimate son” that was cut out of royalties. He also brought in a musicologist as a witness who spoke too academically and compared “Stairway” to the obscure “To Catch a Shad” by the Modern Folk Quartet.
Anderson closed his arguments by saying that Malofiy had not proved the case and that Spirit’s music “would not even be remembered.” It marked the end of a particularly combative trial. Before the judge called for the jury to deliberate, he asked of the attorneys, “Any other catfights?”
Bloomberg reported in April that if Wolfe’s estate had won, they would have been entitled to a share of “Stairway to Heaven” revenue for only the three years before the lawsuit was filed, due to copyright law. The estate would also have been entitled to royalties going forward.
Malofiy filed his original complaint against Led Zeppelin, on behalf of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, in May 2014. He stylized section headers in the font the group used on its untitled fourth album – home to “Stairway to Heaven” – and claimed that Led Zeppelin had become influenced by Wolfe and Spirit’s performances after sharing a bill with them. Led Zeppelin would perform on the same bill as Spirit that year, at a gig where Malofiy claimed Spirit played “Taurus,” and again in 1969.
In his “Preamble,” the lawyer asserted that Led Zeppelin began performing Spirit’s “Fresh-Garbage” – a track on the same record as “Taurus” – at concerts, and that Page and Plant composed “Stairway to Heaven” a year after touring with Spirit. Malofiy also included a chart of Led Zeppelin songs he claimed infringed upon other songwriters’ works. He claimed that Led Zeppelin had knowingly and willfully infringed on “Taurus” with “Stairway to Heaven.”
But in a 1991 interview not mentioned in the complaint, Wolfe described Led Zeppelin’s members as fans of Spirit in the late Sixties and that “if they wanted to use [‘Taurus’], that’s fine. … I’ll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of ‘Taurus’ for their song without a lawsuit.” Malofiy later said he believed that statement was “out of context.”