April 11 (Reuters) - Led Zeppelin's lead singer Robert Plant and guitarist Jimmy Page must face a U.S. jury trial over whether they stole opening chords for their 1971 classic "Stairway to Heaven."
In a decision on Friday, U.S. District Judge Gary Klausner in Los Angeles said "Stairway" and the 1967 instrumental "Taurus" by the band Spirit were similar enough to let a jury decide whether Plant and Page were liable for copyright infringement.
A trial is scheduled for May 10.
The lawsuit was brought by Michael Skidmore, a trustee for the late Randy Wolfe, also known as Randy California, who was Spirit's guitarist and the composer of "Taurus."
Skidmore said Page may have been inspired to write "Stairway" for Led Zeppelin after hearing Spirit perform "Taurus" while the bands toured together in 1968 and 1969, but that Wolfe never got credit.
The defendants said Wolfe was a songwriter-for-hire who had no copyright claim, and that the chord progressions were so clichéd that they did not deserve copyright protection.
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Led Zeppelin's Plant, Page to face 'Stairway to Heaven' trial
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin plays a Gibson Les Paul Standard guitar with a violin bow while performing on stage at Oude Rai on 27th May 1972 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page talks to Gavin Esler about the 40th anniversary re-release of 'Physical Graffiti.'
In this picture taken Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015, British musician Jimmy Page of rock group Led Zeppelin, laughs during an interview with Associated Press in London. Jimmy Page started the project because he couldnât believe how bad Led Zeppelin sounded. The legacy of the band heâd devoted much of his life to was being muddied by the way its classic studio albums sounded when reproduced on the ubiquitous MP3 players that are popular today. Instead of accepting that future generations would have to hear a cramped, compressed version of Led Zepâs sonic booms, Page has devoted several years to completely re-mastering the bandâs extensive catalog in a labor of love that is, with the release of âPhysical Graffitiâ on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
GERMANY - MARCH: Led Zeppelin perform live on stage in Germany in March 1973 L-R Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham (1948-1980). (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)
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UNITED STATES - JULY 29: MADISON SQUARE GARDEN Photo of Jimmy PAGE and LED ZEPPELIN and Robert PLANT, L-R: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page performing live onstage, during filming for 'The Song Remains The Same' (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
PHILADELPHIA, PA Â CIRCA 1980: Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zepellin performs at the Philadelphia Spectrum circa 1980 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Raoul/IMAGES/Getty Images)
British rock group Led Zeppelin, performing at Newcastle City Hall, 1st December 1972. Left to right: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 12: In this handout from the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama talks with the surviving members of Led Zeppelin John Paul Jones, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page during intermission at the Kennedy Center Honors on December 12, 2012 in Washignton, D.C. (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)
Rock band Led Zeppelin, from left, keyboardist/bassist John Paul Jones, singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, stand as the Star Spangled Banner is played during the Kennedy Center Honors Gala at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. While Led Zeppelin is being honored as a band, surviving members Jones, Page, and Plant, each received the Kennedy Center Honors. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 09: (L-R) John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant attend the 'Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day' press conference at the Museum of Modern Art on October 9, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic)
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But the judge said a jury could find "substantial" similarity between the first two minutes of "Stairway" and "Taurus," which he called "arguably the most recognizable and important segments" of the songs.
"While it is true that a descending chromatic four-chord progression is a common convention that abounds in the music industry, the similarities here transcend this core structure," Klausner wrote. "What remains is a subjective assessment of the 'concept and feel' of two works ... a task no more suitable for a judge than for a jury."
Klausner dismissed claims against Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Warner Music Group Corp.
He also said the trustee can get only 50 percent of any damages awarded, citing a 1967 contract that Wolfe signed.
"This case, from our perspective, has always been about giving credit where credit was due, and now we get to right that wrong," Francis Malofiy, a lawyer for Skidmore, said by phone.
A lawyer for the defendants did not immediately respond on Monday to requests for comment.
According to the complaint, Wolfe complained about the similarities of the songs in an interview shortly before he drowned in 1997 in the Pacific Ocean while attempting to rescue his son.
"Stairway to Heaven" is a track on Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth studio album, often referred to as "Led Zeppelin IV."
The case is Skidmore v Led Zeppelin et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 15-03462. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Alan Crosby)