Music expert witnesses have testified on behalf of plaintiffs in the Stairway to Heaven plagiarism lawsuit being heard in a US federal court. The rock band countered with a music expert of their own, giving jurors the opportunity to weigh expert opinions should the case proceed. The high profile copyright lawsuit against the surviving members of Led Zeppelin will continue this week with a ruling expected in the near future.
Led Zeppelin Sued for Stairway to Heaven
Earlier this month the long anticipated copyright lawsuit against the surviving members of Led Zeppelin over their hit song Stairway to Heaven began in a federal US District Court. Plaintiff Michael Skidmore, the trustee managing the estate of songwriter Randy Wolfe (stage name, Randy California), filed the lawsuit alleging Zeppelin stole key pieces of music found in Stairway to Heaven from Wolfe’s song Taurus. Taurus was written by Wolfe while he performed with a 60’s era rock band known as Spirit, and the plaintiff argues that members of Led Zeppelin had heard the song and liked it so much that they used its musical foundation to generate Stairway to Heaven.
The Stairway to Heaven lawsuit has been percolating for several years with Wolfe, who died in 1997, accusing Led Zeppelin members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of stealing the song in the late 1960’s after a concert in which the two bands shared a billing. Plant and Page have steadfastly denied remembering the song or knowing who Spirit was, and have argued that while they may have heard the song before there is no evidence that they intentionally stole from Wolfe. According to the defendants, any musical similarities are coincidental. While the plaintiffs have provided several pieces of circumstantial evidence – the songs were written only years apart, the two bands performed on the same billing, and Page once praised Spirit in an interview – the case lacks hard evidence that Page or Plant intentionally stole the musical foundation of Taurus when composing Stairway.
In order to demonstrate unlawful plagiarism on the part of Led Zeppelin, attorneys for Skidmore called two music expert witnesses to explain the similarities between Taurus and Stairway to Heaven which the plaintiff argues are too striking to be coincidence.
Music Expert Witnesses Testify in Stairway to Heaven Trial
Skidmore’s attorney Francis Malofiy concluded his case by calling two music expert witnesses to the stand to connect the musical dots between Taurus and Stairway to Heaven which the plaintiffs argue provides evidence of plagiarism. Professional guitar player Kevin Hanson, who has played rock music for years and now teaches guitar lessons, took the stand and played key passages from both songs on his acoustic guitar in the courtroom. Hanson told the jury that the songs are “virtually identical,” and when the two songs were played simultaneously he testified that they sounded like one piece of music. Attorneys for Led Zeppelin had Hanson admit during cross examination that he could easily tell the two apart, but the music expert maintained that the similarities between the two pieces of music were significant.
Dr. Alexander Stewart, a musicologist, took the stand as the second music expert witness called by plaintiffs in the Stairway to Heaven lawsuit. Dr. Stewart testified that the two songs have identical downward chord progression in some places, and the “note pairs” which represent iconic components of Stairway to Heaven are shared with note pairs in Taurus. Telling jurors that both Taurus and Stairway included a unique and unusual progression from an E note to an A note which suggests Page and Plant were familiar with Spirit’s work before writing Stairway.
Attorneys for Led Zeppelin countered with an expert witness who explained to the jury that the two songs had significant differences, and any similarities between them were likely due to common musical “building blocks” many songs share.
Led Zeppelin Presents Expert Witness in Stairway to Heaven Case
Attorneys for the former members of Led Zeppelin sued for allegedly plagiarizing portions of Stairway to Heaven from the Spirit song Taurus called Dr. Lawrence Ferrara, a musicologist from NYU, as a defense music expert witness to discuss the two pieces of music. Dr. Ferrara, who played both songs on his piano in order to demonstrate differences, told jurors that the songs were largely dissimilar, even in areas that the plaintiff alleges were identical. Dr. Ferrara went on to play other pieces of music which were arguably similar to both Taurus and Stairway in order to demonstrate to jurors that there are building blocks of music which overlap across many songs, suggesting that any similarities between Taurus and Stairway to Heaven are coincidental rather than unlawful.
Members of Led Zeppelin have asked the judge to dismiss the case by alleging the plaintiffs failed to meet an adequate burden of proof. A ruling is expected later this week.