The Supreme Court connection to the Led Zeppelin lawsuit

Led Zeppelin is now in a literal battle of the bands over the rights to its biggest song “Stairway To Heaven,” in an interesting twist related to a copyright decision handed down by the Supreme Court in June.


Led Zeppelin in 2007: Wikicommons

The dispute between the classic rock titans and the estate of late guitarist Randy California quickly picked up steam this summer after the Supreme Court ruled in a case involving copyrights and the movie “Raging Bull.”

The case of Petrella v. MGM was decided by a 6-3 margin in the Court, with the unusual combination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito on the majority side.

The liberal-conservative alliance agreed that the daughter of Frank Petrella, who wrote a screenplay about boxer Jake LaMotta, can pursue a copyright damages case against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. over profits from the “Raging Bull” movie.

The decision focused on an important aspect of copyright law known as laches, which sets a time limit on how long someone can wait to file a lawsuit.

Paula Petrella’s copyright suit in 2009 contended she should receive some of the profits from the re-release of “Raging Bull.” MGM argued that laches prevented Paula Petrella from waiting for several decades to file a lawsuit.

“In sum, the courts below erred in treating laches as a complete bar to Petrella’s copyright infringement suit,” said Justice Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion.

The precedent allowed plaintiffs like California’s estate to pursue a copyright claim more than 40 years after the alleged songwriting infringement, with the goal of having a jury trial settle the issue.

Several weeks after the Supreme Court decision in the Petrella v. MGM case, trustees for California’s estate filed in the United States District Court in Eastern District of Pennsylvania, under his given name, Randy Craig Wolfe. The trustee for the estate claims parts of “Stairway to Heaven” infringed on a song written by California in 1968 called “Taurus.”

After the song’s release, California’s band, Spirit, played six concerts with Led Zeppelin. In 1971, Led Zeppelin released the song “Stairway To Heaven” as part of its Led Zeppelin IV album.

Led Zeppelin at first challenged the selection of Pennsylvania as the venue for the federal trial.

“The individual defendants are British citizens residing in England, own no property in Pennsylvania and have no contacts with Pennsylvania, let alone ties sufficient to render them essentially at home here,” the group’s attorneys said in a memorandum to dismiss.

The estate’s lawyers responded by saying that, “defendants are subject to specific jurisdiction in this district because they make millions of dollars from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania 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.’”

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Juan Sánchez dismissed the jurisdiction claims by Led Zeppelin’s lawyers and the case will proceed.

In several prior copyright lawsuits, Led Zeppelin settled out of court after claims were made that parts of Led Zeppelins songs were based on the other works of artists.

On October 27, the band is scheduled to re-release the album containing “Stairway to Heaven” with an alternate mix of the iconic song included in the expanded offering.

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