Judge Sets Stage for Trial Over ‘Stairway’ Dispute

LOS ANGELES (CN) – The last time Led Zeppelin graced a stage in California, Jimmy Carter was president, George Lucas’ “Star Wars” was redefining blockbuster movies and Apple was a newly incorporated company.
     On July 24, 1977, Led Zeppelin played at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. By that time, the band had claimed the mantle as the biggest band in the world with a run of classic albums that still have the capacity to astonish today.
     But it was that show in Oakland that ultimately marked the end of the band’s adventures in the United States.
     Three years later, Led Zeppelin’s powerhouse drummer John Bonham died after choking on his own vomit, just before the band was about to embark on another North American concert tour. The group disbanded soon after.
     Now, the surviving members are set to make a dramatic return to California. But it’s unlikely their latest appearance in the state will resurrect the smashing of guitars, the downing of vodka or the trashing of hotel rooms that defined the band when it last performed here. Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones, after all, are now in their sixties and seventies.
     Instead, they will sit in the staid surroundings of a windowless, air-conditioned courtroom to explain the origins of the song they are perhaps most famous for: “Stairway to Heaven.”
     Page, Plant and Jones will take the witness stand in the hope they can persuade a federal jury that there is no merit to claims that the band copied parts of LA progressive rockers Spirit’s song “Taurus” for “Stairway.”
     The defendants in the case are challenging the claims of a trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, Michael Skidmore, who claimed in 2014 that “Stairway to Heaven” infringes on “Taurus,” created by Wolfe and Spirit.
     Wolfe was Spirit’s singer, guitarist, and songwriter. He performed under the stage name Randy California — bestowed on him by Jimi Hendrix, who played with Wolfe in his band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.
     Spirit released the instrumental song “Taurus” in 1967 while “Stairway to Heaven” appeared as the fourth track on the Led Zeppelin’s 1971 untitled album dubbed “Led Zeppelin IV” by critics and fans.
     Never released as a single, “Stairway” quickly helped cement the band’s legacy as one of the most influential rock bands of the modern era. And it’s that legacy that Page and Plant will defend in an LA courtroom.
     Led Zeppelin’s attorneys say in court papers filed on April 4 the rockers will take the stand to talk about how they wrote the epic song and explain how it was created independently of “Taurus.”
     They will also talk about their lack of familiarity with Spirit’s song — a point that has been argued exhaustively in court papers.
     Wolfe’s trustee says that Led Zeppelin played with Spirit three times at concerts in Seattle, Denver and Atlanta in the late 1960s.
     Page was an admirer of the band, the trustee contends, and went to see them in Birmingham, England — even sharing drinks with band members after the show. Led Zeppelin had heard “Taurus” multiple times, according to the trustee.
     Zeppelin had hoped that the court would throw the case out before it ever reached trial.
     But U.S. District Judge Robert Gary Klausner last week delivered a blow to Plant and Page when he ruled that the trustee had offered evidence that the works are substantially similar under copyright law.
     As in last year’s blockbuster “Blurred Lines” copyright trial, Klausner found in his April 8 ruling that the trustee’s “only copyright claim lies in the musical composition of ‘Taurus,’ not the sound recording.”
     That means cited elements in sound recordings — including flutes, acoustic guitar, strings and harpsichord — will not be under consideration.
     But the trustee submitted evidence showing substantial similarities between bass lines in the two songs. That, Klausner said, was enough for the trustee to defeat summary judgment.
     “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 a 20-page ruling. “Moreover, the similarity appears in the first two minutes of each song, arguably the most recognizable and important segments of the respective works.”
     Klausner granted John Paul Jones, Super Hype Publishing and Warner Music Group summary judgment, however, finding that they did not perform or distribute “Stairway to Heaven” three years prior to Skidmore’s lawsuit.
     Led Zeppelin asked the court to rule that the complaint is barred by the statute of limitations. But Klausner said that since Led Zeppelin had released a new, remastered version of “Stairway to Heaven” in 2014, Skidmore could proceed.
     Klausner offered Led Zeppelin and its co-defendants a slight but significant consolation.
     He ruled that the trustee’s damages claim was limited to 50 percent of any recovery amount, Skidmore’s share as beneficial owner of the copyright to “Taurus.”
     The trial is scheduled to begin May 10 in the Edward R. Roybal Courthouse in downtown LA. The parties are scheduled to meet for a pretrial conference on April 25.

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