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Jury rules in favor of Led Zeppelin in 'Stairway To Heaven' copyright lawsuit




Led Zeppelin (L-R): John Paul Jones, now deceased John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, pose in front of an their private airplane in 1973.
Led Zeppelin (L-R): John Paul Jones, now deceased John Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, pose in front of an their private airplane in 1973.
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UPDATE JUNE 23:

Led Zeppelin has won the lawsuit, which claimed that the band's hit "Stairway To Heaven" was a copyright infringement of the band Spirit's song "Taurus."

Journalists and rock fans have been gathering for the past two weeks in downtown Los Angeles for a chance to see Led Zeppelin, but it’s not for a concert. Instead, it’s a courtroom trial.

Guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant have been defending themselves in a copyright lawsuit over their iconic song, “Stairway to Heaven.” The claim is that the famous ballad unlawfully borrowed from the 1968 song, “Taurus,” by the band Spirit.

Taurus

The lawsuit was filed by the estate of Spirit band member Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California, who died in 1997. The trial has been going on for a couple of weeks and the jury has begun deliberating.

The Frame's John Horn spoke with Ashley Cullins, who has been covering the trial for the Hollywood Reporter, about what has been happening in the courtroom and how this ruling may impact the music industry. 

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Federal court is usually a very formal setting. Has it been a strange mix of high-end jurisprudence and rock and roll? 

It has been an absolute circus because there are fans who want to come here to see how it all turns out, and then there are also members of the media whose jobs require them to be in the tiny courtroom. Those two groups of people jockeying for seats has been a bit of a source of tension. We've actually had to get here at six o'clock in the morning just about every day to make sure that we're in the room. 

Has there been any testimony from members of the band with how they came up with "Stairway to Heaven" and what they remember about its creation? 

Jimmy [Page] initially had an idea that he wanted to do something epic, something really complicated with layers of music that really builds. So he had this idea in his head and he said, "The way that it worked in Led Zeppelin is, if a band member had an idea and somebody didn't like it, it was jettisoned very quickly." So he got [Zeppelin bassist] John Paul Jones involved in "Stairway to Heaven" at a very early stage so he would have an ally on his side when he pitched it to the rest of the group. 

Stairway to Heaven

There's been a lot of testimony with what people have and have not remembered from the period in which this song was written, which is more than 40 years ago. What has been the quality of the recall of these rock and rollers about remembering what happened so many years ago?

Well, we've heard the phrase "I don't recall" quite a few times, because it has been so many decades. At one point, Francis Malofiy, who's the attorney for the plaintiff, was questioning Robert Plant about an appearance at a club in the U.K. and [asked] how can he not remember whether or not he met any of the band members of Spirit. Robert basically said, I don't remember anyone that I've hung out with over the years? How am I supposed to remember one single person out of a group when I haven't seen them in 40 years? 

He also reminded the attorney that leaving the club that night, he and his wife were in a very serious car accident with both of them being hospitalized with head injures, and he doesn't remember anything from that entire night. 

So the plaintiff's lawyers — the estate of Randy California — made their closing arguments today. What was the thrust of their argument in front of the eight-person jury? 

The most memorable part was probably Francis Malofiy questioning Jimmy Page's credibility. The crux of his argument boiled down to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant having a reason to selectively misremember things about how "Stairway to Heaven" was created and whether or not they were Spirit fans back then.

And what about the lawyers for the band? What has been the thrust of their argument in front of the jury in closing arguments? 

They basically said that a lot of the plaintiff's case has been totally irrelevant, [that] he's just making arguments and not backing them up with facts. He's says that Randy Wolfe's estate doesn't actually even own the copyright to "Taurus," that Hollenbeck Music does. He says that even if the Wolfe estate owned the copyright, and even if they could prove that Led Zeppelin members had access to this song and copied it, the bits that are similar between "Taurus" and "Stairway to Heaven" are music building blocks that are in the public domain. So they're not copyrightable in the first place. 

As we're awaiting the verdict from the jury, how important do you think this case is for the music industry if Led Zeppelin doesn't win? How much money could they be facing in potential damages? 

I don't know if monetary damages will be the biggest effect. The biggest effect on the music industry will be that this will open the floodgates because of a 2014 Supreme Court case that changed the way that statue of limitation works in copyright cases. If Led Zeppelin loses, this could prevent any legacy act from re-releasing any of their albums. That would open them up to new copyright infringement claims. 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the roles Jimmy Page and Robert Plant played in Led Zeppelin. KPCC regrets the error.



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