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'Stairway to Heaven' Lawsuit Plays Out in Ninth Circuit

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Randy California may have made it to heaven, but his lawsuit over the song "Stairway to Heaven" is stuck in federal court.

California, the late guitarist, claimed to have written a song that Led Zeppelin copied to record "Stairway to Heaven." Michael Skidmore brought the copyright infringement suit on his behalf, but a jury decided the songs were not substantially similar.

In arguments to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Skidmore's attorney said the trial judge erred by not allowing jurors to hear California's full composition. Perhaps the judge didn't like rock, but the appeals court wanted to hear more.

Taurus v. Stairway

Born Randy Wolfe, California played for the Los Angeles-based progressive rock group Spirit. He wrote "Taurus" in 1968."

Led Zeppelin, with Jimmy Page on guitar and Robert Plant singing, released "Stairway to Heaven" in 1971. It was the group's signature song and is widely recognized as one of the greatest rocks songs of all time.

In the copyright suit, a federal jury concluded that Plant and Page may have heard "Taurus before they created "Stairway to Heaven," but the songs were not "extrinsically" similar.

Francis Malofiy, Skidmore's attorney, told the Ninth Circuit panel that his hands were tied at the trial. He said the judge allowed jurors to compare the notes from sheet music, but not to listen to the songs.

"It Does Seem Odd"

Judge Richard Paez asked Led Zeppelin's attorney whether the trial court should have let the jury listen to the music. Peter J. Anderson said it would have been an abuse of discretion because guitar styles affect how people hear music.

"It does seem odd that the jury never gets to hear the sound recording of 'Taurus,'" said the judge.

Noting the jury found no substantial similarity in the written music, Judge Sandra Ikuta asked whether hearing it would have made any difference.

Only heaven, or maybe California, knows.

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