LED ZEPPELIN's publisher Warner/Chappell Music has lost its bid to recoup almost $800,000 in fees in connection with the lawsuit filed by the estate of SPIRIT's Randy California over "Stairway To Heaven".
The plaintiffs had argued that the song borrowed heavily from SPIRIT's "Taurus", but a jury in L.A. disagreed, finding unanimously in favor of LED ZEPPELIN.
On Monday, Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled that Warner/Chappell Music was not entitled to legal fees and other costs because the copyright lawsuit against them was not frivolous.
Attorneys for LED ZEPPELIN asked the Federal Court for $793,000 in legal and other fees, citing "extensive and ongoing litigation misconduct," taking direct aim at Francis Malofiy, who represented plaintiff Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the late Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, who was SPIRIT's guitarist, in his case against Page and Plant.
A disappointed Malofiy felt his side had been dealt a crushing blow when the judge excluded the sound recording of "Taurus" from being played at the trial. Instead, a music expert performed the songs based on their original sheet music. "The jury never got to hear the real evidence in this case and that's very frustrating, because the court system is always a search for the truth," he said.
He went on to sum up his side's view of the case: "We're proud of things we did prove, we're frustrated with the things we were not able to, because of the evidentiary rulings. Did LED ZEPPELIN win in this case? I don't know. I mean, for us it was about credit, for them it was about their legacy and reputation. It's unfortunate, but if they did win it was on a technicality, and I think that was clear."
Page and Plant avoided the press altogether during and after the trial, but issued a statement afterwards. Their legal team didn't answer any questions on microphone.
The verdict in the LED ZEPPELIN case came down within 15 minutes of the jury's request to re-listen to both "Taurus" and "Stairway To Heaven". They wanted to hear a section of each song twice, alternating from one to the other. They decided that what they heard wasn't substantially similar enough to call it copyright infringement.
Music and copyright attorney Steven L. Weinberg, who observed the entire trial, gave The Pulse Of Radio his takeaway from the jury's conclusion. "What this case basically says is that there’s certain musical building blocks that every musician can use and pull from this toolbox," he said. "And it doesn't mean you're copying anybody, it means you're pulling from a very common musical toolbox that's been around for 300 years. And when you do that and you add your own creative elements and you are sued, you're gonna win."
What the jury got to hear weren't the recorded versions of the two songs. Both were acoustic guitar renditions that were played earlier live in the courtroom by an expert musical witness. One was a rendition of Jimmy Page's intro on the ZEPPELIN recording, the other, a replication of the sheet music version of "Taurus" by SPIRIT, which had originally been transcribed on piano.
Weinberg explained how that may have been a very important factor in how the case was decided. "Even though it's a music copyright case, it was defined by what the jury didn't hear, in particular, the 'Taurus' sound recording that everybody on the Internet has been comparing to 'Stairway To Heaven'," he told The Pulse Of Radio. "The jury in this case did not hear that, for various legal reasons. The jury also didn’t hear about LED ZEPPELIN's previous history of borrowing. Rightly or wrongly, whichever way, but borrowing and becoming inspired by other music — they didn't hear those two facts."
The law changed in 1974, but before that date, sheet music was the prime way to establish a song's copyright. "Taurus" was written in the late '60s. The judge accepted ZEPPELIN's motion to exclude the sound recording from the trial, as well as one saying that bringing up the band's past history of copyright lawsuits could sway the jury from looking at this case on its own merits.