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Led Zeppelin’s three surviving members briefly share courtroom at ‘Stairway to Heaven’ trial

June 17, 2016

Led Zeppelin’s three surviving members reunited Friday in Los Angeles, not to rev up the iconic rock band one more time but to defend themselves against charges that the group’s 1971 classic “Stairway to Heaven” was stolen in part from another band’s song.

The group’s bassist, John Paul Jones, was called to testify by a lawyer representing his band mates, guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant, who looked on from their seats a few feet away from where Jones took the witness stand.

Jones testified that he’d never seen L.A. rock band Spirit in concert, that he owned none of the group’s albums or singles and was not familiar with the group’s 1968 song “Taurus,” which is the focus of the copyright infringement trial. After less than 15 minutes on the stand, Jones was excused and exited the courtroom.

Jurors also heard testimony about the millions of dollars that “Stairway” allegedly has earned, and from a musicologist who argued on behalf of Zeppelin that the few similarities that exist between the two songs are commonplace and insignificant. 

For his final witness before resting the plaintiff’s case, Francis Malofiy, the attorney representing the estate of Spirit guitarist and songwriter Randy Wolfe, called an economist to testify about the money that “Stairway” is said to have generated. 

Michael Einhorn rattled off amounts he calculated the song has earned from record sales, digital downloads, publishing agreements and other revenue streams between May 2011 and May 2014 – the period during which Wolfe’s estate would be eligible to share in revenues earned by the song under statute of limitations set by copyright law. 

The total amount calculated by Einhorn was unclear because some figures the economist presented were in U.S. dollars and others in British pounds, but it was in excess of $60 million. 

Peter Anderson, a lawyer for Page, Plant and several music companies that have an interest in “Stairway,” challenged Einhorn’s conclusions.

 Anderson extracted from the economist a concession that some of the payments he cited came out of a 2008 contract that fell outside the three-year period.

He also acknowledged he had not deducted expenses the music companies had paid to produce and sell the song.

At issue in the trial, which began Tuesday and is expected to wrap up early next week, is whether Page and Plant lifted “Stairway’s” famous opening passage from “Taurus,” a song Wolfe wrote. 

A verdict against Zeppelin could mean millions of dollars in royalties from one of the most recognized recordings in rock history going to the estate of Wolfe, who performed as Randy California and died in 1997. Spirit had moderate success in the late 1960s and 1970s, but eventually faded into music obscurity. 

After three days spent on the defensive as Malofiy put on his witnesses, Zeppelin’s legal team opened its case Friday with a music expert.

Lawrence Ferrara, who teaches musicology at New York University, moved from the witness stand to a seat at an electric piano to demonstrate various points he made about the two songs, testifying that their dissimilarities vastly outnumber the similarities.

The debate over the two songs largely comes down to a 10-second musical theme that appears around the middle of the two-minute-long “Taurus,” an instrumental from Spirit’s 1968 debut album. The album was released three years before “Stairway to Heaven” surfaced on Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, commonly referred to as “Led Zeppelin IV.”

Ferrara testified that from a musicological standpoint, perceived similarities between the two songs are “absolutely meaningless,” and only reflect “commonplace” musical elements used for hundreds of years. 

He disputed the heavy emphasis an expert for Wolfe’s estate put on three pairs of notes that appear in both songs, saying it would be like plucking the words “and the” from successive sentences in a paragraph and suggesting they were copied.

Ferrara acknowledged that “Taurus” and “Stairway” share the same downward progression of notes – referred to in court as a descending chromatic line – but said the sequence was a commonly deployed musical device.

“They are a musical building block that no one can possibly own,” Ferrara said of the chromatic lines. 

To illustrate his point, Ferrara cited parts of several well-known songs, including the Beatles’ “Michelle,” as also having a similar structure. The similarity in sound between “Taurus” and some of the songs, Ferrara said, was far closer than “Taurus” and “Stairway.”

The trial resumes Tuesday.


UPDATES:

7:58 p.m.: This article has been revised throughout for additional details and for clarity. 

This article was originally posted at 3:11 p.m.

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