Led Zeppelin face retrial for Stairway To Heaven

SAN FRANCISCO • British rock group Led Zeppelin found themselves winding on down the legal road again last Saturday after an American appeals court ordered a new trial over claims the rockers copied part of Stairway To Heaven.

The court in San Francisco overturned a 2016 judgment by a jury which found no proof the classic 1971 Zeppelin song breached the copyright of Taurus, written by Randy Wolfe of a Los Angeles band called Spirit.

Wolfe's trustee, Mr Michael Skidmore, filed the case in 2015 on behalf of his late friend who long maintained he deserved credit for Stairway but drowned in 1997, having never taken legal action over the song.

The case is "remanded for a new trial", the higher court panel ruled last Friday in a 37-page decision supporting Mr Skidmore's appeal.

It said that certain instructions to the district court jury had been "erroneous and prejudicial" by arguing that common musical elements are not protected by copyright, and by failing to clarify that the arrangement of elements in the public domain could be considered original.

Experts called by the plaintiffs at the lower court trial said there were substantial similarities between key parts of the two songs, but defence witnesses testified the chord pattern used in the melancholic guitar intro to Stairway was so commonplace that copyright did not apply.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, sued along with the group's singer Robert Plant and another surviving bandmate, John Paul Jones, testified in 2016 that the chord sequence in question had "been around forever."

Page and Plant denied plagiarism.

The appeals court panel further ruled that the lower chamber "abused its discretion" by not allowing the jury to observe Page listening to recordings of Taurus.

Mr Skidmore had argued that those observations were important in assessing Page's credibility.

Zeppelin opened for Spirit when the British rockers made their United States debut on Dec 26, 1968, in Denver.

Wolfe, nicknamed Randy California, wrote Taurus in late 1966.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2018, with the headline 'Led Zeppelin face retrial for Stairway To Heaven'. Subscribe