A copyright infringement lawsuit challenging the origin of the start of the 1971 rock classic “Stairway to Heaven” resumes in Los Angeles federal court Friday after Led Zeppelin guitarist-composer Jimmy Page testified that the chord sequence had been “around forever” and is not the exclusive property of the plaintiffs.
It was a new defense in a copyright infringement lawsuit that alleges Page swiped the guitar intro to Zeppelin’s money-minting rock-era classic from an obscure instrumental by the long-defunct Los Angeles group Spirit.
Questioned by a plaintiff’s attorney for a second day, Page said Thursday that the chord progression to “Stairway” probably had more in common with “Chim Chim Cher-ee” from the 1964 film musical “Mary Poppins” than anything else.
The white-haired British guitarist told the eight-member civil jury that “Stairway” and the Disney ditty share the exact same descending musical pattern, adding that the “chord sequence has been around forever.”
But a music expert later testified that the opening chords of Spirit’s “Taurus” and the plucked guitar intro to “Stairway to Heaven” are unique because the sequence resolves in a musically unexpected — and highly original – – way.
Professional musician Kevin Hanson told the jury that the two numbers share a “substantially similar” descending guitar arpeggio that are nearly identical, in the same key and resolve in the same way.
“The rhythm is slightly different,” Hanson testified, but added that the first five chords of both tunes were exactly the same.
“To my ear they sound like one piece of music,” he said.
After Page left the stand, testimony centered on the arcane terminology of music composition, with plaintiff’s attorney Francis Malofiy attempting to hammer home to the jury that his client’s copyright of “Taurus” had been violated by Page and Zeppelin’s singer-lyricist Robert Plant, who is also attending the trial in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
The case was brought by lawyers representing the trust of Spirit’s late guitarist-songwriter Randy Craig Wolfe, known as Randy California.
Page first took the stand Wednesday and said he had only recently heard Wolfe’s 1968 instrumental, which was found on the band’s debut album.
White hair tied back and sporting a tailored black suit, the 72-year-old musician was a natty and affable presence in the austere courtroom. Plant has not yet been called to the witness stand.
At stake in the closely watched lawsuit are millions of dollars in past and future “Stairway” royalties. Some reports estimate the song has earned more than $500 million.
The lawsuit was lodged in 2014, more than 40 years after “Stairway” was released, due to a change in copyright law that allows for such complaints to be filed when infringement is alleged to have taken place in the three previous years.
The jury will have to decide whether there are any substantial similarities between the “Taurus” deposit copy — or sheet music — and the first two and a half minutes of the copyrighted recording of “Stairway.”
The Wolfe trust contends that Page first heard key musical elements later used in “Stairway” when Spirit performed “Taurus” when the band shared the bill with Zeppelin on the British band’s first United States date, in Denver in 1968, and at three pop festivals the following year.
However, in his opening statement Tuesday, defense attorney Peter Anderson told jurors that “Stairway to Heaven” had been composed by Page and Plant, “and them alone, period.”