Dr Ewan Kirk, Senior Lecturer in Law at Birmingham City University

News reports this week revealed that rock band Led Zeppelin face a copyright row over the song ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

The claim is on behalf of Randy California, the deceased former guitarist for the band Spirit. The claim is that Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is based upon a song that he wrote, ‘Taurus’ and therefore he should receive writing credit for this (and therefore presumably a portion of royalties). As ‘Taurus’ was recorded in 1968, and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in 1971, this also raises issues of alleged copyright infringement from decades ago.

The Led Zeppelin case appears to be related to the recent decision of the US Supreme Court in the Raging Bull case, reported this week. That case, Petrella v MGM, involves a ruling which has allowed the daughter of deceased screenwriter of this film to take an action against MGM for copyright infringement. This is on the grounds that Raging Bull, the 1984 film, was based upon a 1963 screenplay written by her father. This was despite arguments from MGM that she had waited too long to pursue her claim. The Led Zeppelin case seems to be another example of alleged infringement from many years ago which has been recently revived and action taken, and therefore we could see more of this type of cases.

The reason for the US Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Raging Bull litigation, is because Paula Petrella is not pursuing action for damages for infringement that happened many years ago, as the US Copyright Act limits claims for the last 3 years. She is claiming for ongoing infringement in the 3 years before her suit was filed.

Both these cases therefore open the potential for further lawsuits in other cases of alleged infringement that occurred many years ago, but which relate to music, films or other media which are still popular today. Due to works such as those mentioned in these cases still selling, then there is an argument of ongoing infringement, and ongoing revenue against which a claim can be made. Raging Bull continues to be distributed on DVD and Blueray (and the distributors of these are actually named as part of the Raging Bull lawsuit) and Led Zeppelin are due to re-release their first 4 albums (with previously un-released material) in June.

However, this does raise the issue regarding the extent to which all copyright works are truly original. All creators of films, music, television programmes, books, and other creative works will draw inspiration upon pre-existing works. The interesting question is whether these cases will affect where the line is drawn between inspiration and infringement, when it comes to works of enduring popularity.

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Dr Ewan Kirk

Dr Ewan Kirk

Senior Lecturer in Law at Birmingham City University