June 16, 2016
Led Zeppelin lead guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Page was grilled for two hours Thursday morning in the federal copyright trial over whether his band’s iconic hit “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarized another band’s song.
Page and Francis Malofiy, the attorney representing the estate of Randy Craig Wolfe of the Los Angeles rock band Spirit, sparred in sometimes sharp exchanges as Malofiy tried, largely in vain, to extract incriminating concessions from the 72-year-old, white-haired rock star.
In much of the morning’s testimony, Malofiy delved into the minutiae of the musical composition of “Stairway” in an effort to show similarities to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus.”
U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner thwarted much of the inquiry because Page is not designated as a musical expert in the case.
Klausner also shut down repeated attempts by Malofiy to ask Page about elements of Spirit’s recording of “Taurus” rather than restricting his examination to the sheet music on file with the U.S. Copyright Office.
In an odd moment, Malofiy played Dick Van Dyke’s recording of the “Mary Poppins” song “Chim Chim Cher-ee” and suggested Page had cited it, rather than Spirit’s 1968 instrumental “Taurus,” as the inspiration for “Stairway.”
Page sharply disagreed, testifying, “No, I didn’t say that. I said they have similar descending chromatic lines.”
Malofiy questioned Page, often aggressively, about whether similarities exist between “Taurus” and “Stairway,” as well as whether he ever met Wolfe, who also was known as Randy California, or whether he ever saw Spirit perform live. Wolfe died in 1997.
Page said that he never met the Spirit guitarist and songwriter and that he never attended one of the group’s live performances.
In a bid to show the millions of dollars that Page, singer Robert Plant and the other members of Led Zeppelin have earned from “Stairway,” Malofiy also tried to introduce a 2008 agreement said to outline the $60-million publishing deal Led Zeppelin signed that year.
Klausner refused to allow the discussion because that contract fell outside the statute of limitations for this case, which allows Wolfe’s estate to reach back only three years before the 2014 reissue of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, commonly known as “Led Zeppelin IV.”
Following Page’s testimony, Larry “Fuzzy” Knight, a latter-day member of Spirit who toured with the band from 1971 to 1981, testified that he met Page at a 1973 after-party in London that Wolfe also attended, but he could not recall seeing the two musicians in conversation at the event.
The case is being closely monitored in the music business because it involves not only one of the most recognizable songs in the rock repertoire, but also one of the most lucrative. In 2008, Conde Nast’s Portfolio estimated that “Stairway to Heaven” had generated $562 million in publishing royalties and record sales since its release.
The common ground between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” largely comes down to a 10-second musical theme that appears 45 seconds into “Taurus,” an instrumental from the band’s 1968 debut album. That song was released three years before “Stairway to Heaven” surfaced on “Led Zeppelin IV.”
The panel must decide whether members of Led Zeppelin heard the song played enough times to conceivably rip it off and whether the two songs meet a legal threshold of “substantial similarity.”
Peter Anderson, one of Zeppelin’s attorneys, told jurors Tuesday the similarity is nothing more than coincidence between musicians working in a field rooted in commonly used and reused musical ideas.
The Zeppelin lawsuit is among the more prominent infringement case to be heard in recent years. In 2015, a jury determined that “Blurred Lines,” a hit 2013 recording by pop stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, copied music from Marvin Gaye’s 1977 tune “Got to Give It Up,” and awarded Gaye’s family $7.4 million. A judge later reduced the award to $5.3 million.
Page carried a guitar case into the courtroom for a second day, but so far, he has not been called on to play it.
Additionally, a full-size electronic keyboard was wheeled into the courtroom before proceedings began, but it has not been played either.