LOS ANGELES — Rock giant Led Zeppelin did not lift music that formed the basis for their iconic hit “Stairway to Heaven,” a jury found Thursday, clearing the iconic rock band of accusations that it stole the opening riff of one of rock music’s most celebrated songs.
The unanimous decision by the panel of eight men and women came after a weeklong trial in which Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant took the stand to rebuff the claim of thievery and tell how they wrote their most famous song nearly half a century ago.
Page and Plant hugged members of their defense team after the clerk read the verdict from the four-man, four-woman jury.
At issue in the current case was whether the British band nicked the opening passage of “Stairway” from “Taurus,” an instrumental song by singer Randy Wolfe, who wrote and performed with his L.A. rock outfit Spirit. Although largely forgotten today, Spirit gained some popularity in the late 1960s and 1970s for their novel fusion of rock with jazz and other styles of music. Wolfe, who as a teenager played regularly with Jimmy Hendrix, was considered a masterful guitarist.
The verdict was a departure from another high-profile infringement case last year in which R&B-soul singer Marvin Gaye’s family was awarded $7.4 million by a jury that decided pop stars Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ monster hit “Blurred Lines” had infringed on Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” A judge later reduced the award to $5.3 million.
Much of the trial hinged on two legal questions: Was it plausible that members of Zeppelin had sufficient opportunities to hear “Taurus” played and, if so, was the opening of “Stairway” substantially similar to Wolfe’s song? The two sides also fought over the even more fundamental question of whether Wolfe had signed over the rights to the song to a music company.
In an effort to show the two bands were in the other’s orbit in the late 1960s, Francis Malofiy, the lawyer representing Wolfe’s estate, called former members of Spirit to testify about festivals at which the two bands were on the bill and evoked old news reports in which Page acknowledged a fondness for Spirit’s music.
While the band members and a fan of Spirit, who testified about seeing Plant at a 1970 Spirit show in England, made a case that the two bands crossed paths a handful of times, no one could recall a concert at which the band performed “Taurus” and members of Zeppelin were definitely watching.
On the question of similarities between the two songs, both sides brought forth expert musicologists, who offered starkly different takes on the musical composition of “Taurus.”