PHILADELPHIA – Much like the protagonist in one of their best known songs, a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against iconic British rock band Led Zeppelin is “Going to California,” per an order handed down by a Pennsylvania federal judge.
A decision made by U.S. District Judge Juan R. Sanchez, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, will send the case to the District of Central California in Los Angeles, subsequent to a successful transfer motion made by the defense.
Michael Skidmore of Quincy, Mass., acting as Trustee for the California-based Randy Craig Wolfe Trust, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court in May 2014 against Led Zeppelin collectively; its living members James Patrick Page, Robert Anthony Plant and John Paul Jones; Super Hype Publishing, Inc.; and Warner Music Group, Corp., the parent company of Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Atlantic Recording Corporation and Rhino Entertainment Company.
The suit was filed over the origins of the band’s famous song “Stairway to Heaven.”
Skidmore’s suit claims the composition of this track was lifted from a similar-styled song created by Wolfe in the late 1960’s titled “Taurus,” later performed by the California-based band he belonged to named Spirit.
During Led Zeppelin’s initial tours of the United States in 1968 and 1969, they opened shows for Spirit – and it is during this time the plaintiff’s counsel asserts Page first heard Spirit’s “Taurus” and later used that song’s “notes, melody, chord progression, structure, tempo, instrumentation, and feel” to create “Stairway to Heaven,” which appeared on Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album (commonly referred to as IV) in 1971 and helped catapult the band to worldwide acclaim and superstardom.
Wolfe passed away in 1997.
In this litigation filed on behalf of Wolfe’s estate, Skidmore is suing all defendants for “direct, contributory, and vicarious copyright infringement” and also brings a claim for equitable relief in the form of an order directing defendants and the U.S. Copyright Office to include Wolfe as a contributing writer of “Stairway to Heaven.”
According to Skidmore’s suit, the defendants are subject to specific jurisdiction in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania because “they make millions of dollars by directly targeting this district for the exploitation of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ through CD sales, digital downloading, radio and television play, advertising, marketing, concert performances, other performances, licensing, and otherwise targeting resident individuals and businesses to profit off the exploitation of ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
In October, however, the defense filed a motion to transfer the case to the Central District Court in California, where all defendants, including the band’s members, consented to jurisdiction. The opinion of defense counsel was none of the band’s members had residence in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, nor were any of the corporate defendants principally based there for business purposes.
It was an argument that found favor with Sanchez.
“The Court finds the individual defendants are not subject to either general or specific jurisdiction in this District. First, none of the individual defendants are domiciled in this District, and therefore, it is only the ‘exceptional case’ in which this Court can exercise general jurisdiction over them,” Sanchez opined.
The court felt similarly about the issue of venue with respect to the corporate defendants as well, as three of them conduct principal business in the state of California and the estate filing suit was created there.
“All defendants consent to suit in the Central District of California; the Trust—the owner of the copyright that was allegedly infringed—is a creature of California law (and defendants intend to challenge the creation of the Trust and Skidmore’s standing as trustee),” Sanchez wrote.
“There are no Pennsylvania witnesses; there are a number of potential California witnesses regarding Wolfe’s alleged ownership of the copyright to ‘Taurus’ and the formation of the Trust; and California law governs the validity of songwriting and recording contracts Wolfe supposedly entered into before writing ‘Taurus,’ which bears on the ownership of the copyright at issue in this case.”
Besides Wolfe being named as a writer of “Stairway to Heaven,” the plaintiff is seeking compensatory damages for all losses, together with interest, costs, and delay damages; defendants’ profits in an amount according to proof at trial; statutory damages of $150,000 per infringement pursuant to federal law, given the willfulness of defendants’ conduct; punitive damages on all causes of actions to punish the defendants for their outrageous and duplicitous conduct; exemplary damages to set an example for others; equitable relief pursuant to federal law; injunctive and other equitable relief inclusive of but not limited to impoundment, destruction, and halting of sales of the infringing material; and costs and attorneys fees.
A jury trial is demanded in this matter.
The plaintiff is represented by Francis Malofiy of Francis Alexander, LLC in Philadelphia.
The defendants are represented by Michael Eidel and Matthew S. Olesh of Fox Rothschild in Warrington and Philadelphia, respectively; Helene M. Freeman of Phillips Nizer in New York City; and Peter J. Anderson of the Law Offices of Peter J. Anderson in Santa Monica, Calif.
U.S. Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-03089
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org