Two years after being sued for copyright infringement, members of Led Zeppelin will climbing a stairway to a courthouse on Tuesday, in an effort to prove that that they didn’t steal from another song in writing their signature hit “Stairway to Heaven.”
A lot of legal back-and-forth has occurred in those two years. In order to get you up to speed on what could very well be the musical trial of the century, TheWrap delivers an essential guide to what’s going on and what might happen.
So what’s this all about, anyway? In 2014, Michael Skidmore sued Led Zeppelin, claiming that “Stairway” infringes on the 1968 Spirit song “Taurus.” Skidmore is the trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, named for the real name of Spirit frontman Randy California, who died in 1997. Skidmore contends that Led Zeppelin would be familiar with “Taurus,” as they played a number of gigs with Spirit and even covered the group’s song “Fresh Garbage,” which appears on the same album as “Taurus.” (Zeppelin claims that they heard “Fresh Garbage” on the radio.)
What does Led Zeppelin have to say about all this? They deny it, obviously — hence the trial. Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page maintains that he never heard “Taurus” until after the lawsuit was filed, even though he had the Spirit album containing the song in his record collection.
Will Led Zeppelin testify at the trial? Yes … probably. On June 8, Skidmore’s attorney, Francis Malofiy, was denied a motion to compel Page, Robert Plant and John Paul Jones to appear at the trial. However, Zeppelin’s legal team say that they have “repeatedly confirmed” that the musicians will be at the trial and that Skidmore’s team engaged in “a PR stunt in the hopes of tainting the jury pool” by filing the motion to compel Page and company to be there. Still, the judge isn’t forcing them to be there.
What can we expect from the trial? A lot of argument about musical experts. A trial brief filed by Zeppelin’s legal team on June 7 contains some scorching accusations against Skidmore’s legal experts, with Zeppelin’s lawyers claiming that “their assertions are the music equivalent of junk science.”
Among Team Zep’s gripes: Three of Skidmore’s experts “are not musicologists. Rather, they are musicians who happen to be long-time personal friends of plaintiff’s counsel.” They also claim that Skidmore’s expert reports “rely on unprotected performance elements in the sound recordings.” Team Zep maintains that the only version of “Taurus” that should be used for comparison is the deposit copy of the song that was filed for copyright in 1967.
What we shouldn’t expect from the trial? Sadly for fans of rock ‘n’ roll debauchery, tales of drugging and boozing. The judge in the case has tentatively granted Zeppelin’s motion to “exclude testimony and argument as to drinking or drug use.” And while this is far from the first time that Page and crew have been accused of lifting another musician’s work, the judge has also tentatively nixed “evidence and argument as to claims and theoretical claims of copying other works and as to settlements of claims.”
So who’s going to win this thing? That’s for the jury to decide, of course, and anything is possible. But despite the similarities between the two songs, entertainment attorney James Sammataro told TheWrap that Skidmore will face “an uphill battle” and a “steep hurdle.” Among the challenges that Skidmore will face: venue. While the case originated in Pennsylvania, the trial will take place in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles — a “studio-friendly jurisdiction” where “courts have typically erred on the side of big businesses,” according to Sammataro.
How much money could be involved? Not as much as you might think. Skidmore will likely only be able to claim damages extending back three years before the suit was filed — not exactly the pinnacle of “Stairway” popularity. Still, the album containing the track, known as “Led Zeppelin IV,” was reissued in 2014. And the song remains a prominent presence on classic-rock radio (especially when a deejay needs to heed the call of nature — or perhaps smoke a joint).
Led Zeppelin’s team also asserts that neither Skidmore nor the trust owns the copyright to “Taurus” and asserts that Skidmore is “entitled to only 50 percent of any recovery.” A judge has ruled in the band’s favor, though Skidmore’s attorney filed a motion to reconsider that ruling this week.
Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.