In the latest development of a case which has continued to stretch out with seemingly no end in site, the Department of Justice and the US Copyright Office have filed an amicus brief with the 9th circuit court of appeals in support of Led Zeppelin, after the English rock band was accused of stealing their hit "Stairway to Heaven" from the somewhat less well known Spirit song "Taurus."
Guest post by Mike Masnick of Techdirt
As announced by the Copyright Office's General Counsel, the DOJ and the Copyright Office have now filed an amicus brief in the 9th Circuit in support of Led Zeppelin in its never ending legal dispute with the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California) over whether or not Led Zeppelin infringed on the copyright of the Spirit song "Taurus" with their classic "Stairway to Heaven." We've discussed this case at length over the years. If you were to just listen to the recordings of Taurus and Stairway to Heaven, you can definitely hear some similarities. Yet, as we noted, you can hear the same similarities in J.S. Bach's Bourree in E Minor, which I believe predates both of those other songs. This video also shows a bunch of other songs (most predating Taurus) that have the same basic melody.
There were a lot of issues in the case, including the unfortunate fact that the original court did make some mistakes, even if the overall outcome -- that Led Zeppelin didn't infringe on the Taurus composition -- seemed like the appropriate outcome. The 9th Circuit in reopening the case, has a chance to fix the problems of the original. But it also has the chance to muck things up.
The case is so strange that even the RIAA and the NMPA stepped in to warn against overprotection by copyright. Let me repeat that. The RIAA argued to a court that you could go too far in protecting copyright. Really.
And here, the Copyright Office and the DOJ are on the right side again. The government's brief is focused on the more narrow issue of what the copyright at issue here actually covers. As we've discussed, for musical works prior to 1973, you could only get a copyright in the "composition" and not the recording. One of the arguments in this case is that Randy Wolfe's estate argued that the copyright of Taurus, registered in 1968, somehow did encompass the recording (and that said recording should be played at the trial), as opposed to just showing the sheet music of the composition that had been deposited with the Copyright Office. As we discussed in earlier posts, this is crazy, as the composition copyright and the recording copyright are two separate things, and there was no sound recording copyright in 1968... so you don't just get to pretend that the composition copyright magically covers the sound recording.
Even more to the point: playing the recording can be completely misleading, because it would include non-copyright covered material, but a jury would be unlikely to be able to parse out which parts are covered by copyright and which were not.
And -- perhaps surprisingly -- the Copyright Office and the DOJ agree. In fact, they note that the various performance elements are not covered by copyright, and when you remove them, what's left is fairly basic and not covered by copyright either:
The copyright at issue here was obtained, as the Copyright Act then required, by depositing a “complete copy” of the work with the Copyright Office. The copyright that was created by that deposit extends only to the work that was deposited with the Copyright Office. While there may be other, related works in which the author or his successors may hold or have held rights, the federal copyright at issue here extends only to the work that was deposited. The district court and the panel thus properly concluded that “performance elements,” which might have been present when the song was performed or recorded but were not reflected in the deposited sheet music, are not protected by the copyright registered with the Copyright Office.
Once those performance elements are removed, the only similarity between the original work and the allegedly infringing work is the selection and arrangement of two basic musical elements: an A-minor chord and a descending chromatic scale. Those elements may not themselves be copyrighted. The selection and arrangement of a small number of standard elements such as these is entitled, at most, to a “thin” copyright that protects only against virtually identical copying. Because the works at issue here are not virtually identical, the district court’s judgment should be affirmed.
The brief here is quite readable, and more or less mocks the arguments of the plaintiff for not recognizing that the same song can have a variety of different copyrights:
Plaintiff’s suggestion that the copyrighted work is something other than the work deposited with the Copyright Office appears to be largely premised on the mistaken view that there cannot be multiple, distinct copyrightable works that are all versions of the same song. The statute expressly contemplates that there can be.
It is not often that I find myself on the same side of a case with the RIAA, Copyright Office and the DOJ. Especially regarding a copyright case. But here we are.
There is still time for the 9th Circuit to mess things up even worse, though. They're good at that when it comes to copyright. Also, no one tell Donald Trump that his DOJ just supported a UK band over an American one.