What the Stairway to Heaven Jury Didn't Hear

For the music industry, the song remains the same because Led Zeppelin's victory applies to old sheet-music law.

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Robert Plant (left) and Jimmy Page performing with British band Led Zeppelin, at Earl's Court, London, May 1975.

Photographer: Michael Putland/Getty Images

When the lawsuit over Stairway to Heaven's authorship went to trial on June 14, it held the promise of resolving one of those debates music nerds had over album racks in (the few remaining) record shops: Did Led Zeppelin steal the opening notes of their epic 1971 ballad from an obscure band named Spirit? For fans on either side, how satisfying would it be to have an eight-person jury in Los Angeles federal court finally put the question to rest?

As the trial took shape, it became clear that supporters on neither side would get the full airing they'd hoped for. Thanks to a law dating to 1909, the album recording of Stairway would be compared only with the sheet music of the 1968 Spirit release, Taurus, as played by musical experts hired by each side. A week and a half later, Led Zeppelin won. The jury found that Stairway isn't substantially similar to Taurus. Or rather, that it isn't substantially similar to the one-page, handwritten “deposit copy” of Taurus found in a Washington copyright office.

“Is it going to resolve the age-old debate? The average person is going to walk away disappointed by this,” says James Sammataro, managing partner at the Miami office of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, which has a national entertainment practice specializing in copyright infringement cases on behalf of media companies. “If you just put an average person down and played the pertinent portion of each song, they'd be struck by it, but that's not what they heard.”

In the courtroom, the jury was serenaded by all manner of Stairway to Heaven versions, including those played live by the experts on guitar and electric piano, scratchy recordings guitarist Jimmy Page made while assembling the composition 46 years ago, and finally the famous eight-minute album track itself. When the jurors heard Taurus, however, it was only the experts’ versions of the sheet music, because the composition—and not the recording—was at issue in the case.

Led Zeppelin in front of their private airliner The Starship, in 1973.
Led Zeppelin in front of their private airliner The Starship, in 1973.
Source: Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Until 1978, songwriters could submit only sheet music to copyright a song in the U.S. Since then, they've also been able to submit a sound recording

For the music business, the stakes seemed high in the Stairway dispute. Just last year, a jury in the same courthouse surprised the industry by awarding $7.4 million (later reduced to about $5.3 million) for the infringement of Marvin Gaye's 1977 Got to Give it Up by Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke with their 2013 hit Blurred Lines. In the Stairway case, the trust of the late Spirit guitarist and Taurus author Randy Wolfe (known as Randy California) was seeking millions of dollars. Any loss for Led Zeppelin could have opened the doors to endless ancient claims tied to old songs. Yet Led Zeppelin's win doesn't necessarily mean the recent uptick in copyright cases will slow—again, because the sheet-music standard generally involves older compositions.

It also doesn't mean the Spirit-Zeppelin battle is over. The lawyer representing the trust, Francis Malofiy, has said that any appeal could include a protest over having been limited to the deposit copy. Among the points he sought to make at trial was that the sheet music is a distant translation of the original guitar composition, and is even written as if for piano. When played in court, the sheet music sounded more like a sibling of the album version, with notes from a harpsichord arrangement mixed in with the guitar tones.

As if to make a point, Malofiy presented the deposit copy of Stairway to Heaven to Page when the guitarist took the witness stand. First he asked Page if he'd ever seen this sheet music before. (He hadn't.) Then Malofiy asked Page, 72, if he could find his famous Stairway guitar solo anywhere on the copyrighted version. (He couldn't.) It wasn't there. Page and Led Zeppelin—and, for that matter, the whole pantheon of classic rockers—should hope they never have to bring a lawsuit based on their own sheet music.

--With assistance from Edvard Pettersson in Los Angeles federal court.

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