Lawyers In Led Zeppelin Case “Ramble On” In Stairway To Heaven Trial

Photo illustration by Stephanie Davidson;

Photo illustration by Stephanie Davidson

It’s 6:50am on a hot Los Angeles morning outside of the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and Courthouse, and I’m standing in line with twenty or so of my brethren from the media.  Writers mostly, law students, and the occasional Led Zeppelin fan.  I’m here standing in line for what could be considered by some as the trial of the century, mind you the century is still a relative newborn.

I was last here at the very beginning of the trial, during the jury selection phase on June 14th, but instead of going inside to do what I came for, to write about the trial, I decided to stay on the curb with all the other cameramen, newscasters, and paparazzi and try to get “the shot”.  Pity, because there ended up being nothing at all to report on outside, the action was all inside.

So return I must, and return I did, early this morning.  After running the gauntlet of security that makes even the busiest of airports seem tame by comparison, I’m inside.  I’m inside and I’m in the front of the party.  When I say party, I mean part-ay, because that’s what this trial has become, something between a media circus and a party.  All the same cast of characters are here; Bluebeard, rocker chicks, and all the aforementioned parties (or partiers).  I’m glad I returned.  Forget the beginning, I’m here for the end.  Today final arguments are being held (or given or whatever the legal term is).

The inside of the Roybal building isn’t what you might expect when you conjure up an image of the inside of a federal courthouse, it looks more like the inside of a Las Vegas hotel.  It’s all pink-and-black highly-polished granite, with low lighting and a view encompassing the vast empire of the Men’s Correctional Facility in Downtown Los Angeles.  Once inside, it looks like the party has already started.  The scene is something right out of a rock concert.  Rocker girls sit against the walls, furiously tapping out their tweets, keeping the world up to date on the trial.  Fans get in line for the actual courtroom, armchair experts discuss the finer points of the case, the truth-seekers, the second-guessers, and the people who are there to “study the finer workings of our legal system.”
In line, I hear the “lifers,” people who have withstood the ravages of time and heat, discussing the finer points of the case.  They might as well be giving odds; they’ve analyzed every single juror, remarking that “the girl on the end is stone cold,” and “juror number three looks down at the floor constantly.”  They think they have it all figured out, and all that remains is the verdict to vindicate their expert opinions.

Francis Malofiy walks by, looking every bit the part of the maligned lawyer.  He looks like what many people would refer to as a “shyster,” dressed in his tailored suit with his trademark biege shoes and walking with the gait of a diminutive fighter on his way to do battle with a much larger opponent.  Malofiy if for nothing else has chutzpah.  I would think you’d want that to go up against Led Zeppelin.  The fans alone would be something most people wouldn’t dare cross.  Try it some time.  Walk up to a group of Led Zeppelin fans and tell them you think the band sucks then let me know what happens after you regain consciousness.

After a ninety minute wait, and numerous admonishments from court clerks to “hold it down,” and “turn off all cellphones,” the time for the trial approaches.  You can almost feel the buzz and the tension in the hallway as 8:30 approaches like a train slowly pulling into the station.  The clerks move the line from one side of the hallway to the other, telling us “don’t worry, you won’t lose your place in line.” This is one serious line; people have staked out their spots for days on end no doubt.  And then, “it” happens.  The doors swing open to swallow us into the court of rock.

The walk into the courtroom can best be described as I once heard the narrator in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary recount that first time the fan descended into the stands at Yankee Stadium, after seeing the playing field his whole life through black-and-white TV.  You pass through a nondescript tunnel and emerge into the stands.  It’s just like this going through the doors, in one instant you’re in one world, and in another, you’re in another surreal one, except you go from color to black and white.  As we pass through the doorway, there is a solitary figure in the center of my field of vision, Jimmy Page.  It shouldn’t be that big of a deal, I’ve seen Page live plenty of times.  I’ve just never seen him like this.  The rest of the room seems to blur and fade into the background, and Jimmy Page is at the center of the vortex, both visually and figuratively.

Page’s hair, now completely silver, shines like a crescent moon on a cold winter night.  His skin does not show the ravages of time as does his songwriting partner (and co-defendant) Robert Plant.  He glows, in spite of the reason he is here in the first place.  Robert Plant on the other hand is almost unnoticeable, especially while seated.  Gone is the swagger, the lion’s mane of gold, the commanding presence.  Here in the courtroom, Plant looks almost wounded.  Sitting at the counsel table, Plant looks worried half of the time, and pissed off the other half.  Both Page and Plant are attired in dark navy suits, their hair tied back in short ponytails.  It’s almost a shock to the senses to see them like this.

The members of Led Zeppelin look like wild animals who’ve been caught in some sort of trap, and one feels pity for them almost immediately.  They don’t belong here, and they make it painfully obvious.  They are almost on display like animals at a zoo.   They are both acutely aware of the finer points of these proceedings against them, they listen intently, and react accordingly.  At one point, Malofiy refers to them as “a very talented cover band” and Plant glowers and shakes his head, almost as though questioning the validity of Led Zeppelin is beyond the bounds of human dignity.

It’s judgement day in courtroom number 805, and what might seem like a trivial matter to some is anything but that.  One look at Plant and you feel the gravity of the situation.  Plant looks very worried, as though he were fighting for his life, not his reputation.  Everyone stands for the entrance of Judge Klausner.  The courtroom is not exactly what you’ve seen on TV, with both the defendants and the plaintiffs facing the judge.  The defendants are facing the jury, and the lawyers for both sides address the judge from behind a lectern.  I’m sitting to Page’s left, with Plant sitting to his right, partially hidden from my view.

Judge Klausner addresses the court, stating “each side will be given forty-five minutes,” and then turns toward the jury, telling them “the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff.”  Another way of stating that the defendants are innocent unless Malofiy can prove otherwise.  And with a nod toward the defense table, it’s time for Malofiy to start his closing argument to the courtroom.

Final summation begins with Francis Malofiy addressing the courtroom.  In his opening remark, he thanks the jury for the time they have spent on the case.  Becoming laser focused, and addressing the court as much as the jury, he intones “this case is about one word: RESPECT” and then adds “Respect, creation, don’t copy.”  He is asking the court to award him “a 1/3 credit for the 2 minutes and 14 seconds of the part of Stairway that’s in question.”  Malofiy at times seems almost patronizing toward Page and Plant, referring to them as “The great Jimmy Page and The great Robert Plant” and then immediately calls them “the greatest cover band in the world.”  It almost sounds like he can’t decide whether to play to the fans or the jury.  At times in his address, Malofiy seems almost hesitant, as though his address to the court was hastily thrown together, peppering his address with “uh’s”.  I would think that something as crucial as closing remarks would have been worked out well in advance by a team of writers.  Maybe he’s just nervous.

As his forty-five minutes of allotted time ticks by, he becomes more animated, and starts to hit back at what he wasn’t allowed to show as evidence.  He states that “the pink elephant in the room is the lack of all audio evidence that the songs are similar,” a charge that the defense objects to and is sustained by Klausner.  Part history lesson, this proceeding would be a fan’s paradise, as Malofiy brings up many of the historical points that most die-hard fans would find fascinating to see being discussed in this manner.  Malofiy switches gears, becoming less antagonistic, stating that “the lawsuit doesn’t minimize the creative genius of Led Zeppelin.  This proceeding means that they just have to share credit.”

When the issue of who owns the copyright is brought up, the actual document is displayed on all the court monitors.  Page reaches into his pocket and produces a pair of clear-plastic reading glasses, so he can get a better look at the document.  Malofiy moves through the portion of the suit called “Access”, where he tries to prove that Led Zeppelin had access to the works of Spirit, claiming that Led Zeppelin opened for Spirit on December 12th, 1968 and that they had performed Fresh Garbage prior to that date.  He also claims that Plant had played Garbage with The Band Of Joy, his band before he was a member of Led Zeppelin.  Malofiy claims that “Fresh Garbage was one of 100,000 songs that were around then, and that “it would be a remarkable coincidence that out of all those songs, Zeppelin chose that particular one to play.  Fresh Garbage was on the same disc as Taurus.  Taurus was track number four.  Are we expected to believe that Page never heard the other tracks on the record?”

Malofiy goes on to state that “Jimmy knew everything about Spirit” and that his testimony is completely inconsistent.  He asks the jury “are we to expect that their memory is better now?”, referring to earlier statements that Page had made in the press over the years.  He accuses Page and Plant of trying to rewrite history by claiming that they remember things today that they couldn’t remember in the past.

Perhaps the most compelling pieces of evidence presented by Malofiy were a taped recording of Jimmy Page saying “Spirit was a band I really like”.  This snippet was played 3 times in succession, reaching out of the past like a ghost.  The words reverberated through the courtroom and just trailed off into the hushed silence.  Malofiy states that Page has been quoted as saying “I really connected with Spirit on an emotional level”.  Malofiy also states that “if Page will lie about one thing, he will like about anything”.  Pretty damning stuff.

In a stunning insight into the finances of the band, Malofiy states that when Led Zeppelin played at the O2 in 2007, they were paid $10M, or $588k per song.  He is asking for 1/3 of the $588k as part of the settlement.  He also claims the band generated $13M gross for the song, and there were publishing revenues of $350k.

Nearing the end of his close, Malofiy asks the jury to “consider the credibility of the defendants”, thanks the jury for their time, and notifies Judge Klausner that he would like to hold 1 minute for rebuttal.  And that ends Malofiy’s closing argument.  Now it’s time for the defence.

Rather blandly, the attorney for Led Zeppelin, Peter Anderson gets up to offer his closing remarks.  “Why didn’t Hollenbeck sue?  Why didn’t Randy Wolfe sue?”, referring to the copyright holder on Taurus.  “What you’ve seen is at best murky.  The plaintiff used a printout from the Internet, Hollenbeck has the real copyright”, casting doubt as to the veracity of Malofiy’s evidence.  When Anderson tries to question the amount of damages being sought by the plaintiff, Malofiy objects and his objection is sustained.

Overall, I found the defense’s arguments to be weak, nonsensical, and almost obfuscatory.  Anderson delves into conversations that Plant had while seated in a club beside a speaker, asking “how is it possible for one to have a clear conversation sitting next to a speaker while a band plays?”.  He calls the admission of Bron-y-aur into evidence “a red herring”.  He tries to hammer home the fact that “there is no evidence Taurus was ever played in front of members of Led Zeppelin”.  Rising in pitch and urgency, Anderson asks “how can you wait for half a century and then criticize people”?

There are comparisons between Taurus and Michelle by The Beatles, the repeated statement that both songs are just essentially “descending chromatic scales”, and that they are “building blocks”, something that “neither side can stake claim to”.

Nearing the end of his argument, Anderson becomes more solicitous toward the jury, telling them that “if two people remember events differently, it does not mean that one of them are lying.  It means that they are just humans and fallible”.  In his last remark, he states that “what the plaintiff is doing is asking you to say that a child has a new parent”, referring to the rightful ownership of the song.  He calls the compensatory request by Malofiy “one of the ugliest exhibits I’ve every seen”.

In his rebuttal to Anderson’s closing argument, Malofiy has been given two minutes by Judge Klausner, and Judge Klausner is not one to suffer fools gladly.  Malofiy proceeds.

“The defendants did not produce anyone who could dispute our figures” are the first words out of his mouth, to which the defense objects but is quickly overruled.  Malofiy concludes by saying that “the similarities between the two songs are not just coincidence”.

With that, the trial is over.  Judge Klausner asks the jury if they would like to proceed with instructions to the jury, or if they would like to take a ten minute break.  They go for the break, and so do I.  I’m going to sit by my computer and await the verdict like the rest of us.  At the time of writing this, it’s 9:40am on the 23rd of June, and at this point, the jury is still deliberating.  The only sign from them is that this morning they passed a note to the court.  We will all have to wait and see.

You can find details on all the motions here.

Ivor Levene

About Ivor Levene

Ivor Levene likes to interview musicians, write about music and musicians, play music, listen to music, read about music, photograph musicians, and anything else you can think of with music. He has been involved with the music scene for over thirty years and his posts have appeared all over the place! Ivor says "I'm going to write about music as long as I have something to say".
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6 Responses to Lawyers In Led Zeppelin Case “Ramble On” In Stairway To Heaven Trial

  1. That may be the best illustration I have ever seen.

  2. Ivor Levene Ivor Levene says:

    It’s almost as good as my story.

  3. Afropix afropixphoto says:

    I’ve been in the Roybal Building federal court a ton of times and never thought of it was comparable to a Las Vegas hotel. Now, next time I’m there, I will have to see if I feel that vibe.

  4. Come on Mr. Levene. Are you just going to leave us hanging there, or are you going to finish the story from your inside perspective? Best insider view I’ve read, by the way.

    • Ivor Levene Ivor Levene says:

      Thank you very much for that comment. At the time of writing, the verdict hadn’t been determined, but we all know now that Led Zeppelin won the case and is now asking for some $600k in legal fees.

      • Yes, but still, be nice to have an insider’s view of what went on in the court when the verdict was read. As a veteran trial watcher, it was frustrating to find so little of what actually happened in court in the press. Reactions, ages of jurors, impressions of judge, counsel, etc. All that jazz.

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