Stairway to Heaven trial jury mulling verdict after impassioned closing arguments
Plaintiffs are seeking millions in damages from Led Zeppelin
Jury deliberations have begun in the “Stairway to Heaven” copyright infringement trial after both sides made their closing arguments in a Los Angeles federal courtroom Wednesday.
Led Zeppelin is accused of lifting parts of the iconic rock song’s introduction from the song “Taurus” by a band called Spirit. After six days of trial, the jury is expected to deliver a verdict by Thursday.
In his closing arguments, plaintiff attorney Francis Malofiy, who represents Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe’s estate trustee Michael Skidmore, asserted that Zeppelin had access to and stole from “Taurus.” He even implied that members of Zeppelin were perhaps more likely to lift the musical line because they had at one point worked as “session musicians” who “play other people’s music … hundreds of times.”
The defense held that “Stairway” was Zeppelin’s own creation, that the plaintiff had failed to meet the burden of proof, and that any similarity between the songs could be attributed to a common musical element that’s in the public domain.
The plaintiffs are seeking upwards of $40 million in damages, as well as a songwriting credit for Wolfe. “This case was about one thing. It’s a six-letter word: credit,” Malofiy said in his energetic closing argument. “It doesn’t minimize [Plant and Page’s] amazing contribution to that song.”
Malofiy emphasized that Led Zeppelin had access to “Taurus” before “Stairway” was published, and questioned the credulity of Page and Plant, the latter of whom testified Tuesday that he did not remember hearing Spirit when they performed at a club he attended in the early ’70s. Malofiy again noted a handful of Page’s previous press interviews that indicated he saw the band perform live and he had a fondness for the group. Page previously testified to having five Spirit albums in his massive collection. According to court documents, Spirit say they shared a bill with Zeppelin three times between 1968 and 1970, although Page denied ever seeing them play live.
At one point, Malofiy made a jab at the band, classifying Page and bassist John Paul Jones as session musicians. “Session musicians play other’s people’s music and they do it hundreds and hundred of times” he said; in the courtroom, Plant shook his head.
Defense attorney Peter Anderson argued that the plaintiff’s case was circumstantial, and that Malofiy never definitively proved that members of Led Zeppelin had heard “Taurus” before “Stairway.” “It was never a single,” he said, offering a jab of his own, saying the Spirit hit ‘”I Got a Line on You’ might be the only song any of us remember.”
Though Zeppelin and Spirit shared billing at concerts, Anderson said no one came forward to definitively say “Taurus” was performed live in the presence of Zeppelin members. Anderson, who on Tuesday played tapes of early versions of “Stairway,” also argued that witness Mark Andes, who testified to seeing Plant at a Spirit show, never testified to “Taurus” being played, and he criticized particular witnesses for being too close to members of the plaintiff team.
Anderson also argued that the contested segment of “Stairway to Heaven” features a chromatic descending arpeggiated scale that skips the E note — a musical scale that exists in the public domain; music experts on both sides of the case agreed on that. Anderson noted that the scale exists in such popular songs as Mary Poppins‘ “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and The Beatles’ “Michelle.”
“I don’t have to say [Spirit’s Randy Wolfe] copied it from ‘Michelle,’” Anderson said. “It’s available to everyone.” He also showed a graphic of “Taurus” and “Stairway’s” sheet music filed in the U.S. Copyright Office that argues the sections are very different once the scale is discounted.
He also challenged the plaintiff’s claims regarding “Stairway” revenues, instead pointing to lower numbers presented during Tuesday’s proceedings, which stated Rhino and Atlantic Records net less than $1 million from “Stairway” during the time period. However, in the event of damages, he did call for the defense to pinpoint how much the line — Wolfe’s alleged contribution — was worth to the entirety of the song.
“Randy Wolfe is entitled to the credit he’s entitled to,” Anderson said near the end of his statement. “But he’s not entitled for credit on what he didn’t do.”