More significant court news, this time not out of the Supreme Court, but out of regular court. I have not been blogging about this because, well a brotha’s gotta rest, but the short story is this:
Plaintiffs. Michael Skidmore, representing the estate of a man by the name of Randy California (Randy Wolfe his given name) are suing Led Zeppelin over their iconic song Stairway to Heaven.
The song, which debuted in the 1971 was composed by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. According to Plant, who took the stand for the trial, he had been trying to come up with a song with Page at a rehearsal and recording retreat 45 years ago…
…when Page played for him the opening notes of what would eventually become the eight-minute epic.
Plant testified that at the time he had been toying with a lyrical couplet evocative of “the natural, old, almost unspoken” culture and mystic scenery of the Welsh countryside and thought it might go well with the music Page played.
“Do you remember what that couplet was?” Peter Anderson, a lawyer for Zeppelin, asked Plant. The musician sighed, hesitated briefly and then recited one of the most revered opening lines in the rock music canon.
“There’s a lady who knows all that glitters is gold and she’s buying a stairway to heaven,” Plant said quietly, continuing, “When she gets there she knows if the stores are all closed, with a word she can get what she came for.”
Wolfe’s estate says that account is not accurate. Lawyer Francis Malofiy claims Wolfe, who died in 1997 in an accident, and his band Spirit had been playing the song Taurus with the same icon opening for years.
Their claim is, although the songs are different, the fact that the same riff is in both songs binds the two in copyright terms and that Wolfe is the rightful owner and creator of both opening riffs and therefore a co-owner of both songs:
“I don’t want to resort to hyperbole,” Mathes said, “but in my view all the parts are significant. Every measure is significant.”
To make his point, Mathes walked the jury through a graphic that showed a musicological breakdown of “Stairway.” Referencing a color-coded diagram of the song as he spoke, Mathes played guitar and occasionally sang different bits of “Stairway.”
The lawyer states as fact that the two band played at similar events in the 60’s and 70’s and that Page and Plant had Spirit’s album in their collection. But Plant countered:
“In the realm of rock ’n’ roll and rhythm and blues,” Plant went on, “there has always been cross-pollination. Without it you wouldn’t have had Little Richard, Larry Williams, the Beatles… all moving across space.”
Plant addressed previous testimony that he had watched Spirit perform at a club in Birmingham, England, and socialized with the band members after that show. Saying the club was a regular stop for him and his wife, Plant claimed to have a poor memory and said he had no recollection of seeing Spirit.
“I really don’t recall any of the bands I saw there or everyone I ever hung out with.”
Jurors listened to recordings made of the band’s first rehearsals of “Stairway” at the Headley Grange recording retreat, and heard Page describe how he worked to create a song that builds from the gentle acoustic guitar opening through his titanic electric guitar solo leading into Plant’s high-register vocal climax.
Today a jury sided with Led Zeppelin and agreed Highway to Heaven is not co owned by the estate of Randy California.
The jury — eight California citizens — delivered its verdict that plaintiff owned the copyright to “Taurus,” that Led Zeppelin members indeed heard it, but that there was no substantial similarity in the extrinsic elements of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” The decision came after the jury took one last listen of both songs. Within a half hour of doing so, the jury had made up its mind.
Why did the estate of Randy California loose? Perhaps this guys can tell us why: