Led Zeppelin Copyright Trial Opens With ‘Stairway to Heaven'

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, sitting in court with singer Robert Plant, nodded his head along with the music presented during opening statements

A California jury will continue to hear testimony Wednesday in a copyright infringement lawsuit over the origins of one of rock music's most famous songs.

The guitar introduction to Led Zeppelin's ballad "Stairway to Heaven" is at the heart of the case being heard in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. Plaintiffs allege the descending guitar arpeggio was lifted from an obscure 1968 instrumental called "Taurus," recorded by the long-defunct LA band Spirit.

During opening statements Tuesday, a defense attorney played for the jury the famous recording of the first two minutes and 14 seconds of "Stairway." Led Zeppelin guitarist, 72-year-old Page, sitting in court with singer Robert Plant, 67, nodded his head along with the music.

The suit was lodged on behalf of Michael Skidmore, administrator of the trust of Spirit's late guitarist-songwriter Randy Craig Wolfe, known as Randy California. Spirit never made a dent on the music charts. Wolfe drowned in 1997 saving his son off the coast of Hawaii. 

Surviving members of Spirit are expected to testify Wednesday.

Defendants include Page, Plant and three companies involved in the Led Zeppelin catalog. The Wolfe trust contends that Page first heard key musical elements — later used in "Stairway" — when the two bands shared the bill during Zeppelin's first U.S. date in Denver in 1968 where Spirit performed "Taurus." The song was also performed at three pop festivals the following year.

In his opening statement Tuesday, Francis Malofiy, an attorney for the Wolfe trust, said the case "can be summarized in six words: Give credit where credit is due." During his 30-minute opening statement in front of a packed courtroom, Malofiy said the jury can look at the lawsuit "almost like a taste test. Do these things taste the same? Do these things sound the same?"


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Malofiy played for the eight-member jury a video recording of the introduction to "Stairway" played on guitar by a musicologist, saying the notes were not original, but a "lifted composition."

In his opening statement, defense attorney Peter Anderson told jurors that Page and Plant were not familiar with the band Spirit or its output, and Page -- Led Zeppelin's guitarist -- had no recollection of ever hearing the song "Taurus."

"'Stairway to Heaven,' was written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and them alone, period," Anderson said.

The attorney said that although Page has acknowledged owning the 1968 Spirit album that contained the instrumental at the center of the case, "There's no evidence that because he has an album now, it doesn't mean he had it 45 years ago."

The defense attorney also played for jurors a recording of a pianist playing "Taurus," which sounded like a Baroque composition and appeared to have little in common with the rock-radio classic. In an unusual argument, Anderson said that whatever similarities might be perceived in the two pieces were actually "basic commonplace musical devices" -- or cliches.

In other words, he suggested, the descending chromatic scale used for the plucked guitar intro to "Stairway" is actually an unremarkable musical device used in countless songs, including the Beatles' "Michelle."

U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner ruled in April that the jury trial would last less than a week and attorneys would have no more than 10 hours per side to present evidence.

The suit alleges that Led Zeppelin has "a deep-rooted history of lifting compositions from blues artists and other songwriters who they have repeatedly failed to credit." In the 1970s, the band made settlement agreements and granted writing co- credits to other artists for several songs originally credited to Page, including "Whole Lotta Love," "The Lemon Song" and "Dazed and Confused."

"Attribution is the most important thing," Malofiy recently told City News Service. "What we want is for credit to be given where it's due. I'm a fan of Led Zeppelin, but in this situation, we want credit for Randy.

In the liner notes to a 1996 reissue of Spirit's first album, Wolfe stated that "people always ask me why `Stairway to Heaven' sounds exactly like `Taurus,' which was released two years earlier. ... They opened up for us on their first American tour."

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