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It took 43 years for the heirs of songwriter Randy Craig Wolfe to sue Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and other Led Zeppelin parties for allegedly stealing the 1971 song “Stairway to Heaven,” and when the lawsuit finally came, it happened in Pennsylvania. If we can imagine this great state to be heaven for a moment, it’s a place where nothing ever happens.
Or so goes the argument on why the lawsuit should be dismissed.
The lawsuit came in June and described a counter-mythology of “Stairway to Heaven” that’s long been suspected among rock historians but never really presented in court: Wolfe, a founding member of the band Spirit, wrote a 2-minute, 37-second instrumental titled “Taurus.” He later toured. Led Zeppelin opened for his band. And Page found his inspiration for creating the band’s biggest hit.
The official story that Page has told over the years is that in 1970, he holed himself up in a remote cottage in Wales called Bron-Yr-Aur, and by the fireside, wrote “Stairway to Heaven.”
The truth — whether Page was a song thief or whether he came to the famous song independently — may need to be addressed sometime, somewhere else. The band has filed a motion to dismiss that tells the judge to reject the lawsuit for the simply reason that Page, Plant et al. are British. (No matter what happens in Scotland today, that fact will remain true.) Wolfe is a deceased Californian.
“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,” states the memorandum. “Under established case law, no good faith basis exists to argue the Court has general jurisdiction over them.”
Under what’s known as the “effects test,” Michael Skidmore, the trustee for the Wolfe trust (and evidently, a Massachusetts resident), can bring his action in Pennsylvania if he alleges an intentional tort, the plaintiff felt the brunt of the harm there, and the defendants aimed their conduct there.
“Stairway to Heaven” might be the kind of song that gets played in Philly guitar shops, but the defendants still argue that the lawsuit doesn’t address harm or activity whose focal point is Pennsylvania.
If the case isn’t dismissed outright, the defendants want it at least transferred to that hot place called California. There, potential witnesses like Spirit’s manager, other Spirit band members, Wolfe’s girlfriend at the time of his death and others reside. California is also home to the books and records that will be fussed over in the case, says the memorandum.
There’s also a possible hint at what’s to come in the lawsuit with mention that the plaintiff hasn’t provided documents that give him trustee authority. In a separate motion to dismiss, Warner/Chappell Music also mentions that the plaintiff is relying “on a California Trust and his allegations that its ownership of Taurus is based on the claimed invalidity of Wolfe’s 1967 songwriter and recording contracts.”
In other words, after the jurisdictional issue is resolved, Skidmore could be challenged on standing. The nitty-gritty of how Led Zeppelin wrote “Stairway to Heaven” is many steps away.
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