As the battle between Led Zeppelin and 1960s psych-rock group Spirit over who's entitled to credit and compensation for "Stairway to Heaven" heads to court next month, industry experts say numerous factors will contribute to who will prevail in the suit.
Gary Klausner, a U.S. district judge, said last week the two songs — "Stairway" and Taurus's 1968 hit "Spirit" — had "enough similar protectable expression" to prompt a trial beginning May 10th. That was good news for Michael Skidmore, trustee for Spirit guitarist Randy "California" Wolfe, who died in 1997.
"While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure," the judge declared in a 20-page opinion. "The descending bass line is played at the same pitch, repeated twice, and separated by a short bridge in both songs."
Wolfe never took action when Zeppelin released "Stairway to Heaven" with a guitar line critics say resembles an atmospheric bit in "Taurus." In a 1991 interview, according to court documents, Wolfe said Zeppelin members "used to come up and sit in the front row of [Spirit's] shows and became friends and if they wanted to use ['Taurus'], that's fine," adding, "I'll let [Led Zeppelin] have the beginning of 'Taurus' for their song without a lawsuit.”
But Skidmore's attorney, Francis Alexander Malofiy, argues Wolfe tried for much of his life to receive credit or compensation for "Stairway to Heaven," one of the most recognizable and lucrative songs in rock history. The 1991 interview, Malofiy tells Rolling Stone, was "out of context," and Skidmore filed court documents showing Wolfe spoke with friend Tracy Longo and Spirit bandmate David Waterbury about filing suit. "You have to understand something — his whole life, he's berated by fans and press. What are you going to do? Are you going to sue?" Malofiy says. "He got to the point where he didn't want to air his laundry out in public, especially when there was nothing he could do."
Skidmore filed suit in 2014, not long after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the daughter of Raging Bull author Frank Petrella could sue to retrieve the rights within three years of a new Blu-Ray release of the film. Led Zeppelin put out a remastered version of IV in 2014, which essentially renewed the three-year copyright period. "That case changed the legal landscape," Malofiy says, "allowing this case to be brought forward."
Led Zeppelin's attorney, Helene Freeman, did not respond to numerous requests for comment, nor did attorneys for co-defendants Atlantic Records and Warner Music. But they've filed motions asking the judge to deny "hearsay" evidence, such as testimony by Wolfe's associates Longo and Waterbury and Page's press interviews. Skidmore's suit quotes Page, in interviews, confirming Zeppelin and Spirit toured together and hung out, with Page admitting he admired the band. But Zeppelin's attorneys say such quotes risk "confusing issues, misleading the jury, prejudicing defendants and unduly delaying the case and wasting trial time."
The trial may hinge on how Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant behave on the witness stand in the Central District of California should they testify. Referring to singer Robin Thicke's meandering, profane 2014 testimony while defending himself for appropriating Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" into his smash "Blurred Lines," a veteran copyright attorney tells Rolling Stone, "That's exactly what you explain to [Zeppelin's songwriters] what you don't do."
Adds Eve Wagner, an attorney who has defended Michael Jackson and many other music stars against copyright-infringement claims over the years: "They just have to tell an engaging story and make it look like they're not taking extremes to avoid being impeached. 'We never went to the [Spirit] show or heard any of their songs' — that would be a bad approach. I don't think anyone would ever believe that. You want to be likable."
"It was always an uphill battle," Malofiy says. "It was a David vs. Goliath fight from Day One."