Day three of the copyright infringement trial between Led Zeppelin and Sixties rockers Spirit over the authorship of “Stairway to Heaven” continued with the plaintiffs’ contentious examination of iconic Zeppelin guitarist and songwriter Jimmy Page.
Expectations were high that attendees would be treated to a possible courtroom performance from Page and his co-defendant, Zeppelin singer Robert Plant. As on Wednesday, Page entered chambers with a guitar, though on Thursday, a Yamaha electric piano was also rolled in behind him. Alas, Francis Malofiy – the counsel representing the suit brought by Michael Skidmore, trustee of the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy “California” Wolfe – began by attempting to get Page to admit he might’ve heard and been influenced by “Taurus,” a Spirit instrumental composed by Wolfe. Page gave Malofiy no quarter: When asked on the stand if he was able to read and write music, Page replied, “To a degree.”
Presiding judge Gary Klausner frequently reprimanded Malofiy, demanding he focus his inquiry only on the similarity between “Stairway” and the “deposit copy” (the sheet music transcription of “Taurus” deposited in the Library of Congress). A prolonged conversation about the musical structure, rhythms, arpeggiation and chording of “Stairway” found the guitarist often befuddled by Malofiy’s queries. One entertaining moment, however, occurred when Malofiy played the Mary Poppins classic “Chim Chim Cher-ee” to discuss its use by Page as a potential inspiration for “Stairway,” causing the rock legend to smile broadly. Malofiy’s rambling and pauses caused Judge Klausner to exclaim “you’re wasting a lot of time” – a refrain that would be repeated throughout Malofiy’s examinations.
The potential for a mistrial appeared to become an increasing possibility. Led Zeppelin’s lawyer, Peter Anderson, objected about the plaintiffs not providing evidence discussed in the trial. “We don’t believe this is an exhibition produced by us or provided to us by the plaintiff,” Anderson said about an audio recording of a vintage Page interview for the rock mag Zig Zag.
Anderson also claimed Malofiy had presented to Page a “composite document,” a batch of multiple documents combined into one so the defense can’t ascertain what’s being referred during witness examination, and had attempted to influence the proceedings with contracts signed by Page that had been deemed confidential during pre-trial. “The discovery [in this trial] has been abominable!” Judge Klausner exclaimed upon yet another such objection sustained against Malofiy.
The plaintiff did reveal what may be its key advantage, however: A major point in both sides’ cases is the statute of limitations around “Stairway” royalties. Through examination of Page, Malofiy revealed that a previously unreleased version of “Stairway” – included in a companion disc of alternate mixes from Led Zeppelin IV done by Page and engineer Andy Johns as part of a recent series of Zeppelin reissues – may actually be liable under the three-year statute of limitations at issue in the case.
It was a moment of actual tension in what was otherwise a relentless barrage of tedious legalese, suggesting that no assumptions can be made yet about who will prevail in “Michael Skidmore vs. Led Zeppelin et al.” As a comment by Robert Plant made in another 1970s-era interview played for the court stated, hopefully “good will will prevail and logic will reign over the whole thing.”