Courtroom Rocks in Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Trial

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – It was music rather than legalese that left an impression in the first day of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” copyright trial, as jurors were treated to side-by-side comparisons of that song and Spirit’s “Taurus.”
     Michael Skidmore sued Led Zeppelin in 2014 as trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, claiming “Stairway to Heaven” was ripped from the song written by Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California, which appeared on his band’s 1968 debut album.
     Robert Plant and Jimmy Page sat at their attorneys’ table on Tuesday, looking by turns dismayed and amused as Skidmore’s attorney Francis Malofiy argued that the first two minutes of “Stairway to Heaven” is substantially similar to “Taurus.”
     At one point it looked like technical problems might prevent Malofiy from playing an audio comparison between “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus” to make his point. But his technician prevailed, allowing jurors to hear a guitar part from “Stairway to Heaven” and a bass line from “Taurus.” The jury heard them separately before Malofiy played a version that melded the parts seamlessly together.
     The effect was more pronounced than Malofiy’s opening argument, though the attorney did not mince words.
     “This case can be summed up in six words,” Malofiy said. “Give credit where credit is due.”
     At time Malofiy sounded more like a star-struck rock fan than an attorney. But even as he took a breath to describe Page’s “lovely hands,” he excoriated the guitarist for passing off California’s work as his own.
     “It was a lifted composition from a lesser-known song,” Malofiy said.
     Skidmore claims that Led Zeppelin had access to “Taurus” after playing concerts with Spirit in Seattle, Denver and Atlanta in the late 1960s. He said the band came to watch Spirit shows even when the bands were not on the same bill.
     But Page and Plant’s attorney Peter Anderson told jurors that evidence to support such claims is scant at best.
     The composition that Skidmore is using as the basis of his copyright claims does not contain protected elements under copyright law because they have existed in music for centuries and are commonplace, Anderson said.
     “‘Stairway to Heaven’ was written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, and them alone. Period,” Anderson said.
     Anderson also played the introduction to the Led Zeppelin song and then the opening of “Taurus.” The version the jury heard was recorded on a piano and based on sheet music for “Taurus,” deposited at the U.S. Copyright Office.
     Again, the comparison was stark. And again it seemed that music said more about the case than any lawyer could.
     Plant, Page and the other surviving band member John Paul Jones are all expected to testify this week about the origins of “Stairway to Heaven” and support Anderson’s opening salvo that they neither had access to nor were influenced by “Taurus.”
     Page and Plant were dressed in dark suits with their hair tied back. Both men ignored requests for comment outside the courtroom. Jones, who was dismissed from the case, was not in court Tuesday.
     The trial has been billed as a sequel to last year’s “Blurred Lines” trial, which ended with a $7.4 million verdict against music producer Pharrell Williams and singer-songwriter Robin Thicke.
     The echoes are more than musical, not least because of the elevated security and restrictions in and around U.S. District Judge Robert Gary Klausner’s courtroom.
     During the morning proceedings there was limited space in the courtroom, with reporters from Courthouse News, The Associated Press, Bloomberg, Law 360, the Press Association and others unable to secure seats, and consigned to the corridor outside.
     Judge Klausner also barred note-taking with pens. One reporter rushed to a nearby drugstore to buy a box of pencils, which were permitted. Then the court clerk announced that Klausner had lifted the ban and pens were allowed.
     Though Skidmore’s lawsuit relates to claims that date back 45 years, he managed to survive a motion to dismiss when Klausner ruled that the clock started clicking decades later when Led Zeppelin released a 2014 remastered version of “Stairway to Heaven.”
     Led Zeppelin asked Klausner to throw out the case, but he ruled that the songs’ introductions were similar enough to go to trial.
     “The similarity consists of repeated A-minor descending chromatic bass lines lasting 13 seconds and separated by a bridge of either seven or eight measures,” Klausner wrote in an April 4 ruling. “Moreover, the similarity appears in the first two minutes of each song, arguably the most recognizable and important segments of the respective works.”
     Glen Kulik of Kulik Gottesman & Mouton also represents Skidmore.
     Page and Plant are represented by Anderson and Helene Freeman with Phillips Nizer.
     In the afternoon, the jury heard from Skidmore’s first witnesses, Randy California’s sister Janet Wolfe, and former Spirit band member and composer Jay Ferguson.
     The trial continues this week at the Edward Roybal Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

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