During closing arguments Wednesday, an attorney told the panel that Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant should be held accountable for millions of dollars in royalties for having “lifted” a brief musical passage from an obscure instrumental by the Los Angeles band Spirit over 45 years ago and using it as the introduction to their rock epic “Stairway to Heaven.”
But an opposing lawyer countered that the delicately descending pattern is a commonplace “musical building block” that is in the public domain and thus not legally protectable.
Attorneys for both sides delivered their summations before an eight- member federal jury in downtown Los Angeles in the closely watched tussle over the genesis of one of rock music’s best-known songs. “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” or 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 Page in the first moments of “Stairway” is merely a musical device, so common and unoriginal that “it belongs to everyone.”
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.”
But Malofiy alleged that the pattern used in both “Stairway To Heaven” and “Taurus” 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.”
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.
–City News Service
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