The song remains the same: Led Zeppelin are in the clear after a federal jury decided the band did not plagiarize their signature track, 1971’s “Stairway to Heaven.” The panel announced their unanimous decision on Thursday in a Los Angeles federal court room.
The English rockers were accused of infringing on the copyright of the instrumental track “Taurus” by the American band Spirit. Michael Skidmore, a trustee of the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe, was the plaintiff and accused Zeppelin of lifting “Stairway’s” acoustic guitar-laden introduction from “Taurus” and sought upwards of $40 million in damages, as well as a songwriting credit for Wolfe.
But the eight-person jury ruled that even though Plant had access to “Taurus” and that Skidmore and Spirit’s estate had copyright to “Taurus,” the “original elements of Spirit’s song are not extrinsically similar” to “Stairway to Heaven.”
Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant were in the courtroom when the verdict was handed down, a day after closing arguments were made Wednesday morning. They both smiled and hugged their team after the court adjourned.
“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. We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us,” Page and Plant said in a joint statement after the verdict was announced.
Warner Music Group made a similar statement and said, “A Warner Music Group, supporting our artists and protecting their creative freedom is paramount. We are pleased that the jury found in favor of Led Zeppelin, re-affirming 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.”
But plaintiff attorney Francis Malofiy told reporters at the courthouse, “They won on a technicality. We proved access. We proved they had access to the music, but [the jury] never heard the music.” (A studio recording of Spirit’s “Taurus” wasn’t played during the hearing.) “So the jury’s sitting there with basically blinders on without ever having the opportunity of hearing the evidence at issue.”
Skidmore later reiterated this point at a presser and said, “If the jury had heard ‘Taurus,’ the sound recording, we would have won the case. They were limited to looking at a piece of paper.”
He continued, “We got the access, we got the trust’s okay, we weren’t allowed to tell them the money [awarded from the suit] goes to charity. It was all skewed in Led Zeppelin’s favor. All I can say is money talks louder than common sense. We did the right thing. We tried to carry on Randy’s legacy … We had a small team versus multinational corporations. I think we did a really good job.”
Malofiy agreed: “We’re fighting with a foot stapled to the ground, and an arm tied behind our back, and it wasn’t a fair fight.” When asked if they would appeal, he said, “There’s obviously issues that can be appealed.”
During the trial, the plaintiff sought to prove that Led Zeppelin had access to “Taurus” and that the two works are substantially similar.
Both sides explored the history of “Stairway to Heaven,” with the plaintiff pointing to instances when members of Zeppelin allegedly heard Spirit perform “Taurus” (which the defense refuted), and the defense arguing that Zeppelin created “Stairway” alone, even playing tapes of early versions of the song.
Music experts also testified about the similarities between the songs, pointing out that “Taurus” and the “Stairway” intro both use a chromatic descending arpeggiated scale that skips the E note — a common musical element that is in the public domain and has been used by the likes of The Beatles and Mary Poppins, the defense argued.