An attorney told a civil jury Wednesday that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are liable for millions of dollars for having “lifted” a chord progression from an obscure instrumental by a Los Angeles songwriter over 45 years ago and using it in their rock epic “Stairway to Heaven.”
But an opposing lawyer countered that the pattern is a commonplace “musical building block” that’s in the public domain and thus not legally protected.
Attorneys for both sides delivered their summations before an eight- member federal jury in downtown Los Angeles in a closely watched legal tussle over the genesis of one of rock music’s best-known songs. Jurors began deliberating late this morning and finished at 4 p.m. without reaching a verdict. The panel is expected to resume discussions Thursday morning.
“Give credit where credit is due,” plaintiff’s attorney Francis Malofiy said. “This case has always been about credit.”
Malofiy — representing the administrator of the trust of Randy Wolfe, the late songwriter and guitarist who worked under the name Randy California with the band Spirit — alleges that Page and Plant crossed paths with Spirit while on the road and were familiar with the Los Angeles band’s music, particularly the group’s 1968 album track “Taurus,” which the lawyer claims became the basis for the 2-minute, 14-second acoustic-guitar intro to “Stairway.”
“We’re asking for a one-third credit, a shared credit,” Malofiy told jurors, asking that damages be assigned to the Wolfe trust in an amount between $3.4 million and $13.5 million.
However, defense attorney Peter Anderson told the panel the plaintiff never proved that the trust owned the copyright to “Stairway,” that Page and Plant were familiar with “Taurus” or that Page and Plant had ever heard Spirit perform in the few times the bands shared a concert bill in 1968 and 1969.
Anderson said the “descending chromatic scale” played by guitarist Page in the first moments of “Stairway” is merely a musical device, so common and unoriginal that “it belongs to everyone.”
Musicologists from both sides testified during the week-long trial that there was nothing unique about the pattern, the lawyer said.
“These kinds of musical building blocks were out there (in widespread use) and Randy California didn’t need anyone’s permission to use them,” Anderson said.
A music expert testified last week that any similarity between “Stairway To Heaven” and “Taurus” can also be found in music dating back more than 300 years.
Lawrence Ferrara, a music professor at New York University, said 17th century Venetian opera singers and Mozart used the descending chromatic scale found in both songs.
“That progression, that movement, has been around for 300 years, dating back to the 17th century,” Ferrara testified. “In the 20th century, before ‘Taurus,’ a large number of popular musicians, artists and composers also used it.”
The witness for Led Zeppelin’s defense team told jurors that the device was a “musical building block” for a song, adding that it is not “something anyone can possibly own.”
Songs including Antonio Carlos Jobim number “How Insensitive,” the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart standard “My Funny Valentine,” “Michelle” by the Beatles, and the 1967 hit “Music to Watch Girls By” all had similarities to “Taurus,” Ferrara said.
But Malofiy alleged Wednesday that because the pattern used in both “Stairway To Heaven” and “Taurus” did not resolve in the same manner the musical examples given, it was actually a “very unique compositional element.”
“Page never said where he got the idea for the intro,” the lawyer said. “That’s because it was a piece of music that was lifted from Spirit and Randy California.”
In his testimony, Page said that the chord progression at the start of “Stairway” probably has more in common with “Chim Chim Cher-ee’ from the 1964 film musical “Mary Poppins” than anything else.
If the jury decides there was musical plagiarism attributable to Page and Plant, it must then decide whether damages should be awarded and how much, based on figures discussed by music business analysts and record company accountants.
David Woirhaye, the chief financial officer of Rhino Entertainment — which markets and distributes the Led Zeppelin catalog — testified that sales of “Stairway” resulted in revenues of $3.4 million during the five-year statutory period at issue in the case, not including publishing royalties.
The recording of “Taurus” was not played for the jury. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled that only the copyrighted sheet music was admissible. The jury heard witnesses playing the Spirit song — as well as “Stairway” — on both guitar and piano.
The suit was lodged on behalf of Michael Skidmore, administrator of Wolfe’s trust. The songwriter drowned in 1997 off the coast of Hawaii.
Defendants include Page and Plant, both of whom testified during the trial, and three companies involved in the Led Zeppelin catalog. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones also spent about 15 minutes on the witness stand, although he is not party to the lawsuit.
Tuesday, Page concluded the defense case by introducing excerpts from his own 46-year-old work tapes revealing the development of “Stairway.” The final nearly 8-minute finished version was then played for the jury.
Page swayed, tapped his fingers along with the beat and smiled as his band’s multimillion-selling signature song rang out in the austere 60-seat courtroom.
Plant testified earlier that he recalled writing the opening stanzas of “Stairway” in 1970 as he and Page sat by a fireplace in an English country manor house where the band recorded and rehearsed.
The Led Zeppelin classic — a mainstay of at least two rock radio formats — first appeared on the band’s untitled fourth album in 1971.
Page — who wrote and produced Zeppelin’s music and controls the band’s catalog — told the court that he had not heard “Taurus” until his son-in-law showed him a comparison with “Stairway” on the internet a few years ago. He also said he only recently discovered he owned more than two Spirit albums after checking his record collection of more than 10,000 vinyl albums and CDs.
—City News Service
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