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Wolfe Estate lawyer responds to ruling in Led Zep song-theft trial

By | Published on Monday 27 June 2016

Led Zeppelin

The lawyer representing the Wolfe Estate in the Led Zeppelin song-theft trial has said his side lost because of the decision by the judge to limit the case to the core compositions of the two songs in question, rather than allowing jurors to compare the recordings.

As much previously reported, the Zeppelin were accused of ripping off Spirit song ‘Taurus’ for their hit ‘Stairway To Heaven’. The Spirit track was written by the late Randy California – aka Randy Craig Wolfe – who was always ambivalent about the similarities between the two songs during his lifetime, but the lawsuit was pursued by the trust which now benefits from his estate and the royalties it earns.

As in the ‘Blurred Lines’ plagiarism case last year, because the infringement claims related to the copyright in the song not the recording, the judge overseeing the case said only the core compositions as filed with the US Copyright Offices could be considered by the jury, not the actual tracks as released, where the similarities are arguably more pronounced.

In a statement to Rolling Stone, the Wolfe Estate’s lawyer, Francis Malofiy, said: “For Led Zeppelin, they won on a technicality – they should be proud of that. For plaintiff, the jury’s verdict is disappointing, but largely determined by one ruling of the court: plaintiff was not permitted to play the album recording of ‘Taurus’, which Jimmy Page had in his record collection. This ruling, which limited plaintiff to using the sheet music deposited in the Copyright Office, effectively tied our hands behind our back. Needless to say, we do not believe it is legally correct or logically sound”.

There were two key elements to the plagiarism case, first whether or not the two songs were sufficiently similar to constitute copyright infringement, and second whether or not Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had been exposed to ‘Taurus’ before writing ‘Stairway’. On the latter point the jury sided with the Wolfe Estate, but Led Zep nevertheless prevailed because the jury sided with them on the first point.

Malofiy noted this in his statement, continuing: “The jury agreed very clearly with plaintiff that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had access to ‘Taurus’, and discounted their denials that they had never heard ‘Taurus’ before”. He then concluded: “For Led Zeppelin, the case was about their legacy and reputation; for Randy California it was about credit. In this regard, neither party won. Justice is sweet and musical; but injustice is harsh and discordant. Here, there was injustice”. So that’s fun.

Considering what precedents this latest song-theft ruling might set, US lawyer J Michael Keyes noted last week that potential plaintiffs in plagiarism lawsuits must consider whether the case will centre on the core composition of their song, and whether that will impact on the jury’s opinion with regard to similarities.

“It may have been too much of a stretch for the jury”, he said of the Led Zep case, “to appreciate any similarities between a rather sedate piano composition [of ‘Taurus] and the soaring, electric sound recording of one of the rock genre’s greatest hits of all time”.