Expert Testimony Begins at "Stairway to Heaven" Trial

After Jimmy Page left the stand, music experts picked apart his work.
Bob Gruen
Led Zeppelin

For the Led Zeppelin fans who lined up outside a Los Angeles courthouse before it opened at 7 a.m. on Thursday, the day's trial proceedings were likely a disappointment.

Guitarist Jimmy Page started off on the stand in the morning, but the questions he faced were rather dry — although he did play the air guitar while talking to fellow bandmember Robert Plant during one of the breaks.

The rockers are being sued for copyright infringement by an heir of Spirit songwriter Randy Wolfe, known as Randy California — a name given to him by Jimi Hendrix and about which the jury was told repeatedly. Wolfe's trustee Michael Skidmore claims "Stairway to Heaven" is a rip-off of Spirit's "Taurus."

Other than the two songs actually at issue in the lawsuit, there have been a few others that have been mentioned often during the proceedings.

Page discussed his familiarity with and fondness of "Chim Chim Cher-ee," although he didn't outright say it inspired him. Page and Plant's attorney Peter Anderson pointed out that Spirit members admired The Beatles and "Michelle" was a hit before "Taurus" was written, and the music experts also discussed "Dido's Lament," a 17th century composition.

By pointing to how many songs use downward chord progressions, Led Zeppelin's attorneys seek to prove that the common elements are basic musical building blocks and not the basis for infringement.

Skidmore's attorney Francis Malofiy called two experts to the stand Thursday. One was professional guitar player Kevin Hanson, who is apparently friends with Malofiy from the days before the attorney started wearing a suit. (Those are Malofiy's paraphrased words.) The other was musicologist Alexander Stewart.

Both Hanson and Stewart testified that "Stairway" and "Taurus" share a downward chord progression and three "note pairs" that are iconic to both songs. The experts didn't believe they were commonplace, although Stewart said he does not eliminate uncopyrightable elements from his analysis of works because when you combine them with other elements, they can "rise to the level" of protection.

Skidmore himself testified for the last 10 minutes of the day, during which time he said this lawsuit is a "labor of love" in an effort to continue Wolfe's legacy.

Malofiy is nearing the end of his 10-hour time limit, so he'll likely finish Friday morning. There's a chance Anderson could move for a directed verdict and ask the judge to rule on the case instead of the jury, which happened last fall in the copyright fight over Jay-Z's "Big Pimpin'."

If that happens, Klausner's courtroom demeanor so far isn't a good sign for Malofiy. He has sustained more than 100 objections against the attorney and has repeatedly scolded him for wasting time on fruitless lines of questioning and technology troubles.

If that doesn't happen, Anderson has indicated he will call Page, Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones and noted musicologist Lawrence Ferrara to testify — although some of them may have to wait until Monday to take the stand.