Appeals Court To Rehear Case On 'Stairway To Heaven' Copyright Infringement Questions

from the a-mess,-a-mess,-a-mess dept

Almost exactly three years ago, we were pleasantly surprised to find that a jury unanimously ruled that Led Zeppelin did not infringe on a song by the band Taurus called “Spirit” with “Stairway to Heaven.” We noted that, similar to the Blurred Lines case, if you just listen to bits and pieces of each song, you can hear a similarity, but that does not, and should not, mean it was infringing. As we’ve pointed out, while Stairway and Taurus can sound similar:

… the same is true of Stairway, Taurus… and J.S. Bach’s Bouree In E Minor, which you’d better believe is in the public domain:

Given all that, we were disappointed last fall when the 9th Circuit suddenly vacated the jury’s decision and ordered a new trial, claiming that the jury instructions in the original were incorrect. However, as copyright lawyer, Rick Sanders explained, there were potentially some positives to come out of this, such as some very good reasons for this decision, including that it might fix the 9th Circuit’s insanely ridiculous legal framework for determining if there is infringement. Also, there were some very real problems with the jury instructions.

However, before the case did go back for a second trial, that decision was appealed, and now the 9th Circuit has agreed to hear the issue en banc (with an 11-judge slate). It looks like there are a number of potentially important issues that the court will get a chance to dig into when it hears the case this fall. The guy who runs the estate of the guy who wrote “Taurus” wants the court to determine whether or not the specific sheet music that is deposited with the copyright lays out the full scope of what is covered (under the 1909 Copyright Act, which applied when the song was written), and also suggests that the court needs to consider the “dire consequences” of its decision “including the seismic disenfranchisement of almost all” musicians of pre-1978 music (which, uh, is quite a bit of hyperbole). Meanwhile, Zeppelin admits that there were some problems with the original jury instructions (though, not as much as the other side claims), but says that it wouldn’t have made a difference and that the plaintiff “invited and waived” the mistake in the first place.

However, as Rick Sanders noted in his pieces, Zeppelin’s lawyers also ask the 9th Circuit to toss out the weird “inverse ratio rule” legal framework that the 9th Circuit uses in determining infringement (to understand that weird rule, go back and read this piece).

Of course, this is the 9th Circuit we’re talking about, and it has a way of getting copyright law completely screwed up all too frequently. So while it has a chance to do something good, it could also muck things up, and this particular court is especially good at mucking up copyright law.

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Comments on “Appeals Court To Rehear Case On 'Stairway To Heaven' Copyright Infringement Questions”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The fact that a guy, who had nothing to do with the creation of the supposedly copied song, who runs the estate of a man who has been dead for 22 years is suing over a song that was recorded 48 years ago shows everything wrong with this concept of copyright lasting 70 years after the death of the creator.

dlesko (profile) says:

Re: It can continue for longer than that even!

When an author dies, the ownership of the copyright changes. Copyright is personal property, so the person who created the work could choose whom to pass the ownership of the copyright to. Copyright is treated no differently than other property. So ownership in a copyright can be passed to an heir or to a third party via a will.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: It can continue for longer than that even!

Copyright is personal property

Copyright is NOT property. It is a made up construct! It should end after 25 years, no exception. It should be able to be passed along if the owner dies prior to 25 years, but it still ends there.

The way I look at it, if you are still begging for money from a copyright that is older than 25 years, then you have failed at your art and should find a new profession.

(And YES it’s BEGGING for money because you are not doing a damn thing but holding your hands out. Go out and do something to earn your livelihood.)

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: So long as you ignore the parts where it very much is, sure...

Copyright is treated no differently than other property.

Exactly, that’s why when I needed to use my neighbor’s car and new trailer for something artistic I was able to just drive off with them and use them as I pleased, because if you can do it with a song or picture you can damn well do it with a car or other piece of physical property, the two categories being completely interchangeable.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: It can continue for longer than that even!

"Copyright is treated no differently than other property"

Which is a major part of the problem. The stated purpose of copyright is promote the progress of the arts and useful sciences and to incentivise further creation of works. A guy who’s been dead for 20 years has no more incentive to create than Beethoven, and so the work should equally be in the public domain.

I’m all for giving heirs something, but the ability to extort people decade down the line should not be a factor.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: It can continue for longer than that even!

Actually copyright is not treated no differently than other property. If infringed, the payout is significantly larger compared to theft. Also, no property taxes.

Copyright at the moment is a carefully sculpted "best of both worlds" scenario in the style of "Got mine, fuck you".

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: It can continue for longer than that even!

"Copyright is treated no differently than other property"

Unless we talk about tax to enforce copyright laws. Where does the money come from to protect "your" property?

Maybe if we taxed it like other property, we wouldn’t have to divert so much educational funds their way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Copyright on music should end maybe 10 years after the composer
dies, the present system helps big corporations, mainly,
Look at pop music, theres very few songwriters who create good music after the age of 40,
pop singers mostly have 2-3 big hit songs and live off royaltys and revenue from sponsors or advertising and concert ticket income.
The 75 year limit is a restriction on the public domain and
does not give anyone incentive to make new music .
I think 90 per cent of good pop music is made by artists between the age of 18 – 40 .

Anonymous Coward says:

The reality is that if you haven’t profited enough from work you did only ONCE after so many decades you truly don’t deserve Copyright at all. This is especially true if we are talking about copyright holders that are either descendants of the original author or comercial entities since they don’t even create anything they are just bottom feeding rent-seeking scum masquerading as legitimate plaintiffs.

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