Led Zeppelin did not lift the guitar riff used in the opening of its signature hit “Stairway to Heaven” from the lesser-known, US group Spirit, a Los Angeles jury ruled on Thursday, finding there were substantial differences between the two.
The unanimous verdict, reached on the jury’s second day of deliberations, followed a week-long trial in US District Court in Los Angeles that had called into question the originality of the classic 1971 song by Led Zeppelin, one of the top-selling rock acts of all time.
Legal experts said the decision could narrow the grounds on which future copyright infringement challenges are brought in the music industry.
The jury found that Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page had access to Spirit’s 1967 instrumental track “Taurus” but that the riff they were accused of stealing was not intrinsically similar to the opening chords of “Stairway.”
Page, 72, and Plant, 67, who testified and were present throughout the closely watched trial, showed little immediate reaction to the verdict in court.
“We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and confirming what we have known for 45 years,” Page and Plant said in a joint statement.
The conclusion to the Led Zeppelin case comes just over a year after a federal jury in Los Angeles found singers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had plagiarized Motown great Marvin Gaye in creating their hit single “Blurred Lines.”
A jury awarded Gaye’s family $7.4 million, but a judge later reduced the amount to $5.3 million. That verdict is under appeal.
While the “Blurred Lines” case might have bolstered hopes for other artists suing for copyright infringement, Led Zeppelin’s victory may cause musicians and attorneys to think twice before heading to court, said music attorney William Hochberg, who was not involved in the latest case.
“This decision created a sharper, clearer line in terms of what is protectable and what is not in music,” Hochberg said.
Page, who co-wrote “Stairway to Heaven” with Plant and composed the guitar riff in question, testified he had not heard “Taurus” until recent years.
He acknowledged owning a copy of Spirit’s self-titled album containing “Taurus” but did not know how he had acquired it.
Michael Skidmore, trustee for the estate of the late Randy Wolfe, Spirit’s guitarist and “Taurus” songwriter, filed the lawsuit in 2014 accusing British rock band Led Zeppelin of lifting the “Taurus” chord progression.
Led Zeppelin opened for the now-defunct U.S. band on tour in the United States in 1968, the lawsuit stated. The group disbanded in 1980.
Skidmore’s attorney, Francis Malofiy, said after the ruling that his side was hamstrung by U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner’s order preventing jurors from listening to Spirit’s recording of “Taurus.”
Instead, jurors could only compare simple renditions of the sheet music for the two songs.
“We’re taking it one step at a time … but there’s obviously issues that can be appealed,” Malofiy said.
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