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Led Zeppelin plagiarism suit going to appeal

Photo by Danny Martindale/Getty Images

The battle over the copyright of Led Zeppelin's 1971 classic "Stairway To Heaven" rolls on and now heads to a federal appeals court, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Back in June, the songwriters Robert Plant and Jimmy Page prevailed in Los Angeles federal court in the copyright infringement lawsuit regarding their authorship of the song. The pair was sued by Michael Skidmore, the trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, on behalf of the late Spirit guitarist who wrote "Taurus" and performed under the name Randy California. The trust was hoping to not only win a monetary judgment, but also secure a writing credit for California on "Stairway To Heaven."

At the time, Rolling Stone reported: "In the decisions of the questions considered by the jury, the verdict initially seemed to be leaning towards the plaintiffs. The first -- whether or not the trust of late 'Taurus' songwriter Randy Wolfe, represented by trustee Michael Skidmore, actually owned the 'Taurus' copyright -- ruled 'yes' for the plaintiffs. Questions over who actually owned the 'Taurus' copyright had been a key part of Zeppelin counsel Peter Anderson's defense throughout the trial.) And as to whether there was a 'preponderance of evidence' that Page and Plant had 'access' to 'Taurus' in advance of writing 'Stairway,' the answer was definitively 'yes.'"

Now, as part of the appeal process, a new 90-page suit was filed by attorney Francis Malofiy in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which claims that it is "quite clear" that Jimmy Page relied on "Taurus" to compose the opening riff of "Stairway To Heaven." Malofiy writes in the brief: "The most important of these errors was that the trial court refused to let the jury hear the full and complete composition of 'Taurus' embodied in the sound recordings that Jimmy Page possessed, instead limiting the comparison to an outline of the 'Taurus' composition in the deposit copy lead sheet.”

Malofiy, who is seeking a reversal of the previous court's decision and a new trial, clearly wants the jurors to hear the recordings as well as the sheet music being performed to render their decision, citing that "access and substantial similarity are inextricably linked, yet the jury was asked to render a verdict without a key instruction that describes this relationship.”  

Tim English is an expert on musical plagiarism and the author of the 2016 edition of Sounds Like Teen Spirit: Stolen Melodies, Ripped-off Riffs, And The Secret History Of Rock And Roll. We asked him if even with all of Zeppelin's money and top-shelf legal advice, whether it could still go south for the band once it hits a jury: "I think when you get these things in front of the jury, you may have sympathy for the plaintiff here, because they figure, 'Well, look at Led Zeppelin, these guys are famous, they don't need the money anyway' -- whatever they get awarded. Y'know, you always have that whenever it's a 'David vs. Goliath' dynamic going on here.”

Randy Bachman, best known for his work in the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO), told us that the iconic "Stairway To Heaven" riff is truly centuries old. Bachman, like the rest of the rock world watched as the estate of his old friend Spirit guitarist Randy California took Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to court over the song, and revealed to us that it's been around for centuries: "I have something from the 14th century, a harpist, who's name was (Turlough) O'Carolan, who was blind. He went from yard to yard -- he had a dog that led him. He would stand at your front gate, 'cause he couldn't see the house -- and play this little harp. He had a song called 'Ascension To Heaven.' Bert Jansch then did that on guitar, and I'm telling you, 'Ascension To Heaven' by O'Carolan, is 'Stairway To Heaven.' As old as the ages."

Check it out: A comparison between "Stairway To Heaven" and "Taurus"

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