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Stairway to the Courthouse: Part II

On Behalf of | Oct 22, 2014 | Intellectual Property

Led Zeppelin, one of the most popular bands of all time, has lost its first court battle in the lawsuit over iconic megahit “Stairway to Heaven,” brought by the estate of guitarist Randy California and profiled in one of our earlier blog posts.The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by the trust of the late Randy California, a founding member of the band Spirit, and Spirit bassist Mark Andes, and alleges copyright infringement as well as “Falsification of Rock N’ Roll History.”

In 1968 and ‘69, Spirit and Led Zeppelin performed several concerts together that featured one of Spirit’s instrumental tracks, called “Taurus.” The lawsuit states that Stairway’s iconic introduction was lifted directly from Taurus, which Led Zeppelin heard while opening for Spirit on those concerts, and seeks monetary damages as well as a writing credit for California.

The Led Zeppelin members named as defendants moved to dismiss the suit on the grounds that they are all British and have no ties to Pennsylvania. The District Court judge, however, denied the band’s motion and has allowed the lawsuit to proceed. Under the so-called “effects” test, a district court can exercise personal jurisdiction over a non-resident defendant if the plaintiff felt the brunt of the harm there or if the defendants allegedly aimed their conduct there. In this instance, the fact that Stairway to Heaven is one of the best-selling, most profitable musical works of all time suggests that Led Zeppelin’s conduct in marketing, selling, and performing the song was essentially aimed at Pennsylvania, among other places, so the judge ruled that the case will remain in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The cause of action for “Falsification of Rock N’ Roll History” will almost certainly be invalidated because, frankly, it’s both non-existent and completely ridiculous, but the plaintiffs here have won the first procedural battle and successfully thwarted Led Zeppelin’s efforts to have the case tossed on jurisdictional grounds. If nothing else, this development serves to show that musicians and entertainers are uniquely vulnerable to the “effects” test, and can be hailed into court in far off places simply by having successfully marketed and sold records there. We will continue to monitor the case as the battle against the legendary rock band continues.

Frank Gulino is an award-winning composer and attorney with Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. He can be reached at [email protected]