The trial over whether Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant stole the iconic opening riff to “Stairway to Heaven" opened with testimony about when the British rockers might have heard the 1968 song they’re accused of copying.
Jurors in Los Angeles federal court on Tuesday heard from the sister of deceased guitarist Randy Wolfe and his former band mate in the group Spirit about how likely it was that members of Led Zeppelin would have heard live performances of “Taurus,” the instrumental Wolfe wrote for his girlfriend.
Page, 72, and Plant, 67, sat in dark suits and ties at the their lawyers’ table in a packed courtroom during the first day of testimony. Eight jurors will be asked to determine whether the pair would have known “Taurus" before they released “Stairway to Heaven" in 1971 and whether one of the most recognizable songs in the history of rock is substantially similar to Spirit’s composition.
“‘Taurus’ was a special moment” during Spirit shows, former member Jay Ferguson said on the stand. He described it as a “pallet cleanser” between the band’s more rocking songs.
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Francis Malofiy, the lawyer representing Wolfe’s trust, contends Led Zeppelin would have heard Spirit play “Taurus” during the occasions he claims the bands played together, including at Led Zeppelin’s first U.S. show in Denver in 1968 and at later rock festivals. Another Spirit track, “Fresh Garbage,” was part of a medley Led Zeppelin performed at live shows, according to Malofiy.
“Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are incredible musicians, incredible performers," Malofiy told the jury in his opening statement. “They covered other people’s music and tried to make it their own.”
Under cross-examination by Page and Plant’s lawyer, Peter Anderson, Ferguson admitted that “Taurus” wasn’t one of Spirit’s so-called tent-pole songs they performed at every show without exception.
Anderson told jurors in his opening statement that the descending chromatic scale that Led Zeppelin is accused of having stolen from Wolfe’s composition is exceedingly common in pop music and isn’t something that can be protected under copyright law.
"History can’t be rewritten and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was in fact written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant," Anderson told the jury.
The first witness to testify was Wolfe’s younger sister Janet Wolfe. She told the jury her brother wrote “Taurus” for the woman who was the love his life and who he would later marry. Spirit played the song every time she saw her brother’s band perform in the late 1960s, Janet Wolfe testified.
Malofiy played the jurors a video of a session guitarist performing the opening of “Stairway to Heaven” and a portion of “Taurus,” and then overlapped the two performances to demonstrate the alleged similarity between the songs.
Anderson played the album version of “Stairway to Heaven” and a musicologist’s piano rendition of "Taurus," based on the copyrighted sheet music, to highlight the differences between the two.
The trial comes amid an uptick in lawsuits over allegedly stolen songs following last year’s surprise verdict by a Los Angeles jury that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s 2013 mega-hit “Blurred Lines” infringed Marvin Gaye’s 1977 single “Got to Give It Up.” This year, singers Kanye West, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran have been sued for alleged copyright violations.
The case is Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, 15-cv-03462, U.S. District Court, Central District of California (Los Angeles).