Led Zeppelin ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Trial Day 1: Judge Already Warns of Mistrial

Band is accused of ripping off a Spirit song for its iconic anthem

Last Updated: June 14, 2016 @ 7:30 PM

The copyright infringement trial against Led Zeppelin kicked off in a Los Angeles courtroom on Tuesday with a dramatic clash worthy of the band’s high-volume anthems, with the judge already warning that the plaintiff’s attorney was risking a mistrial.

The warning came during opening statements on Tuesday, when Francis Malofiy, attorney for Michael Skidmore, asked to play a video of the opening to the Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” the song at the center of the trial, being played by an expert.

Peter Anderson, Led Zeppelin’s attorney, pointed out that the video was not an agreed-upon exhibit in the trial, at which point presiding judge R. Gary Klausner warned Malofiy that he risked a potential mistrial if that were the case.

Seemingly unfazed by the admonition, Malofiy went ahead and played the video, which also contained a recording of the Spirit song “Taurus,” which Zeppelin is accused of infringing upon, and somebody playing the first two minutes of “Stairway to Heaven” on acoustic guitar.

Led Zeppelin is accused of lifting from the 1968 Spirit song “Taurus” while writing “Stairway to Heaven.” Michael Skidmore, the trustee of the Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, dubbed after the real name of Spirit frontman Randy California, filed suit in 2014. His suit notes that Spirit and Led Zeppelin played a number of shows together before the release of “Stairway to Heaven.”

Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant, who are expected to testify during the trial, were present in court on Tuesday, as was Skidmore. Page has said that he hadn’t heard “Taurus” before the lawsuit was filed, though he did say that the album it’s contained on, Spirit’s self-titled debut, was in his record collection.

During opening statements on Tuesday, Malofiy told the court that the trial can be summarized in six words, “Give credit where credit is due.”

Malofiy peppered his opening statement with a theatrical flourish, declaring, “In the beginning, God created …” before launching into a speech about how “copyright gives credit to creation but it does not give credit to copying.”

In a courtroom packed with media and music fans, Malofiy dismissed the notion that Led Zeppelin weren’t thoroughly familiar with Spirit, noting that Page had expressed his appreciation for the group throughout the decades, and that Plant drank and played snooker with the group at Birmingham, England, club Mother’s in 1970.

Zeppelin, he said, “appreciated this band on an intimate level.”

Malofiy emphasized that Led Zeppelin heavily relied on covers of other musicians’ songs when they began and suggested that Page isn’t a songwriter, but also expressed admiration for the group.

“They are incredible performers and incredible musicians but they covered other people’s music and tried to make it their own,” he said.

Zeppelin attorney Anderson, meanwhile, asserted that “evidence will make it clear there was no copying.”

“‘Stairway to Heaven’ was written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and them alone. Period,” Anderson said.

Anderson also told the court that the chromatic chord progression common to both songs is so commonplace to be known as a “minor line cliche” that goes back centuries and has been used in the Beatles song “Michelle,” which preceded “Taurus.”

Anderson also asserted that Skidmore and the Wolfe trust do not own the copyright to “Taurus,” and instead the copyright is owned by Lou Adler’s Hollenbeck Music, which registered the tune for copyright in 1967.

The first day of the trial kicked off with jury selection, with the lawyers settling on an eight-person jury of four men and four women. During the selection process, three potential jurors identified as Led Zeppelin fans were eliminated.

On Tuesday, Malofiy told TheWrap that he wasn’t anticipating a drawn-out proceeding.

“It is going to be a short trial,” Malofiy said. “No foreplay. In and out.”