Led Zeppelin Copyright Trial Hinges on Access

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – At the root of the “Stairway to Heaven” copyright case is whether Led Zeppelin even had access to the song that supposedly influenced their seminal track. The band’s surviving members say they don’t recall hearing it, while their accuser says they must have.
     As the second day of a jury trial began Wednesday, plaintiff Michael Skidmore put up witnesses to move the jury into his column, taking a trip down memory lane to revisit the music scene of the 1970s in the process.
     Dressed in suits with their hair tied back, the defendants Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have not appeared in court over the past two days for nostalgia. They are in Los Angeles to defend against claims they copied Spirit’s “Taurus” for their 1971 song “Stairway to Heaven.”
     Sitting opposite Page and Plant in court is Skidmore, a trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust. In 2014, more than 40 years after “Stairway to Heaven” was released, he brought a federal copyright infringement lawsuit against the duo, claiming they ripped off Randy Wolfe, aka Randy California, the singer and guitarist who had created “Taurus” in 1967.
     On Wednesday morning, former Spirit vocalist and percussionist Jay Ferguson concluded his testimony. Jurors next heard video testimony from amateur rock photographer Michael Ware, which was recorded in London last month, as Skidmore tries to persuade them that Led Zeppelin had heard “Taurus” multiple times before they created “Stairway to Heaven.”
     Skidmore’s attorney Francis Malofiy said that Led Zeppelin heard the song after playing concerts with Spirit in Seattle, Denver and Atlanta in the late 1960s, and that they were admirers of the band.
     Plant watched a Spirit show at a small suburban music venue called the Mothers Club in Birmingham in early 1970, Malofiy said.
     On Tuesday, former Spirit band member and composer Jay Ferguson testified that he had talked to Plant briefly before the show during a meet and greet. Ferguson, an admirer of Led Zeppelin, said he was flattered that Plant had come to watch him perform.
     In his video testimony, Ware said Plant had been at the show, describing a sweltering, jam-packed club full of rock fans that were struggling to stay on their feet.
     Ware said he vividly recalled the event, describing Plant as standing about 15 feet away from him in the front row among concert goers who were sitting on the floor. He said Plant was recognizable because of his long “corkscrew” blonde hair.
     “I can categorically state that Robert Plant was in the front row watching Spirit and enjoying them,” Ware said.
     He said that Spirit’s entrance offered a brief respite after a back door opened and the group emerged, sending a gust of cold air into the club.
     “I don’t think people could breathe, let alone dance. It was extremely oppressive,” Ware said.
     According to a 1970 report from the British music newspaper Melody Maker, Plant’s Jaguar collided with a mini-van after he left the show in Birmingham.
     He was admitted to the hospital with a “badly cut face and smashed teeth,” according to the paper, which noted that Plant had been at the show to see Spirit.
     Spirit bass player Mark Andes later testified that he had played snooker with Plant after the show, The Wrap’s Pamela Chelin said in a post on Twitter.
     Page was to take the stand Wednesday afternoon in the Los Angeles courtroom. Plant and the band’s other surviving member, bassist John Paul Jones, are also expected to testify.
     By some estimates “Stairway to Heaven” is worth $562 million in publishing royalties and record sales.
     But for Page and Plant, there is more at stake than just money. “Stairway to Heaven” is one of the most recognizable songs in rock history and came from an album that spawned many of the band’s best-known songs.
     Led Zeppelin has decided to settle copyright claims out of court before and it’s telling that, this time, they decided to fly to L.A. to defend themselves.
     William Hochberg, an attorney specializing in music and media law, said that in this case Page and Plant could be “taking a stand.”
     “It’s possible that they feel very strongly about the integrity of their songwriting on this, one of their greatest hits,” Hochberg said. “And they don’t think that they have to pay this guy for what they think is a very commonplace progression.”
     On that point, Led Zeppelin’s attorney Peter Anderson was unequivocal during his opening arguments.
     The bass line segment of “Taurus” that forms the basis of Skidmore’s 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 Tuesday.
     Anderson also cast doubt on whether Skidmore even owns the copyright to “Taurus,” noting that in 1967 California assigned rights in the song to Lou Adler’s Hollenbeck Music. According to Skidmore, California was 16 years old when he signed the agreement.
     Skidmore’s lawsuit asked for compensatory damages, profits, statutory damages of $150,000 per infringement, punitive damages, and exemplary damages.
     Testimony was to continue Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Judge Robert Gary Klausner’s courtroom on the eighth floor of the Edward Roybal courthouse, with Page taking the stand to testify.

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