June 15, 2016.
Is it true? Did Jimmy Page or Robert Plant plagiarize the famous song, Stairway to Heaven? This is one of the many issues the jury is considering right now in the court room of Judge Gary Klausner, in the Central District of California in Los Angeles.
The accusations are that the Led Zeppelin band members took the opening sequence of the song from another band from a song called Taurus, by a band named Spirit. The Plaintiff alleges the original music was written by Randy Wolfe a/k/a Randy California. Randy Wolfe unfortunately can’t be there to testify about the origins of the song, because he passed away in 1997 after saving his son from drowning. However, the lawsuit is being asserted by a trust on behalf of the late guitarist’s claimed rights holders. There’s potentially a lot of money at stake since copyrights can extend many years after the death of an author. The Plaintiffs are seeking around $40 Million in royalties based on the alleged similarities of the songs.
However, the path to recovery will be difficult. Page and Plant have testified that this work was written in a cottage in the countryside of Wales, and claim they never had access to the work by Spirit. “Access” is an important concept in copyright law because the plaintiff has the burden of proving ownership of a valid copyright and copying of protectable elements of a work. To prove copying the plaintiff will have to show either direct copying, or access and substantial similarity between the works. Allegations were made that Led Zeppelin had access by attendance at similar concerts. The jury will have to assess the credibility of the witnesses.
In this case, the defense has made arguments that the Plaintiffs are trying to protect a basic chord progression called a “descending chromatic line,” which is arguably centuries old and is commonplace in many forms of music. This is something that is the subject of testimony by music experts. Through the “protectable elements” requirement, the law of copyright recognizes that it would not be fair to allow one person to monopolize basic musical sequences or note progressions.
Copying issues aside, the Plaintiff will face other critical issues related to ownership and damages. The defendants have challenged ownership of the work by the Plaintiff based on status as a “work for hire” under the 1909 Copyright Act, which applies to many works authored before 1978, such as the songs at issue here. A “work for hire” changes who owns a copyright in the case when a work is made on the dime of an employer or a publishing company. In many cases, songwriters can assign copyright ownership to songs via publishing agreements, and the jury is reportedly also being asked to consider these types of issues in addition to copying.
Members of Buche & Associates, P.C. have litigated in this same courtroom, so we are eager to hear the verdict, like the rest of the music loving world. John Buche is an attorney who has enjoyed listening to Led Zeppelin (frontwards and backwards) on many occasions and has handled a variety of music related litigation. www.buchelaw.com