HITS Daily Double


Led Zeppelin's 1971 opus "Stairway to Heaven" is back in court, with a hearing underway in a San Francisco 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The situation so far: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were accused—by representatives of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California) of the band Spirit—of allegedly copying a portion of his 1968 song "Taurus." The riff in question is a descending chord progression, which has been said by defendant Led Zep's musicologist Lawrence Ferrara to have its roots in a common 17th Century Baroque music riff by composer Giovanni Battista Granata entitled "Sonata di Chitarra," (wait for the :30 mark) which is public domain. If that's accurate, then perhaps both Led Zep and claimant Wolfe may have been influenced by it.

Michael Skidmore, a trustee representing Wolfe's estate, and his lawyer Francis Malofiy, initiated the lawsuit back in 2014. In 2016 a jury ruled in favor of Led Zep, finding that the two songs were not substantially similar. Skidmore appealed in 2018, and in June 2019 a new trial was ordered, due to errors in the jury instruction process. Led Zep is being represented by attorney Peter Anderson.

There have been a handful of controversial rulings in recent past, most notably Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' "Blurred Lines" vs the estate of Marvin Gaye, and Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" vs Marcus Gray aka Flame, which have gone in favor of the accuser. Some industry watchers have opined that these results were unfair and set an awful precedent, attacking the building blocks of songwriting.

One key question in the proceedings is whether or not juries can make an informed decision on such matters. Many insiders believe that only trained musicologists are qualified to render a legally relevant opinion.

The "Stairway" ruling is considered so pivotal that the judge in yet another case, regarding similarities between Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" and Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud," is apparently waiting to see what happens in the "Stairway" trial before moving forward with a ruling on his own trial. It's rare for the 9th Circuit to rule en banc (with all judges present), as it is here, especially in a copyright case.

Update: Early reports from the courtroom are coming in, detailing that the panel of 11 judges are not convinced there needs to be a new trial. Most of today's hearing involved Malofiy arguing that the sound recordings of "Stairway" and "Taurus" should be played, compared and included as evidence, not just the sheet music. He argued that the recorded versions are far more similar than the sheet music, which he said was (for "Taurus") a poor transcription. Malofiy continued along this line, saying that although a 1909 copyright law that covers "Taurus" protects the sheet music, that legal precedent existed that allows a "look to other evidence," and that a song's recorded version could/should be included. Several judges were skeptical. More as it develops.

We can't wait for this trial to finally wind on down the road.