Led Zeppelin wins “Stairway to Heaven” copyright case

Via BBC and NPR, a Los Angeles jury found Led Zeppelin did not infringe a copyright with its iconic song “Stairway to Heaven.” While Led Zeppelin won the case (and gets to keep its $562 million+ in royalties), the jury did find that the band had access to prior art (the older song), an element of copyright infringement. After the court victory, Zeppelin band members released a statement to the LA Times: “We are grateful for the jury’s conscientious service and pleased that it has ruled in our favor, putting to rest questions about the origins of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ and confirming what we have known for 45 years … We appreciate our fans’ support, and look forward to putting this legal matter behind us.” This jury verdict for Led Zeppelin comes on the heels of our prior post about the case.

My law firmJohnson Law KC LLC, is experienced counseling individual, corporate, and nonprofit clients on entertainment law, copyright, trademark, and IP litigation issues. We work with authors, musicians, artists, photographers, bloggers, songwriters, filmmakers, and others to provide cutting edge, reliable expertise on IP. We can help you answer these questions with confidence and friendly expertise. If we can serve you with your entertainment law, copyright, or IP questions, please call (913-707-9220) or email (steve@johnsonlawkc.com) to schedule a free, convenient consultation.

(c) 2016, Stephen M. Johnson, Esq.

Substantial Similarity and Copyright Law

In copyright law, when a person claims someone else stole (or “infringed”) their work, they have to prove substantial similarity between the two works. In Los Angeles, a trial is underway about the Led Zeppelin song, “Stairway to Heaven.” (The band’s Jimmy Page talks about writing the iconic song here.) Since its 1971 release, the band has made well over $562 million in song royalties. But some other musicians claim the song is too similar to an earlier song, “Taurus” (1968), infringing the Spirit band’s prior art. As the parties battle the case out in court, both sides are calling expert witnesses to evaluate how similar the songs are (or aren’t), and whether copyright infringement occurred. What do you think – are the songs too similar, does Stairway infringe on Taurus? Whatever the court’s decision, this case may reverberate through the music and copyright law worlds for some time.

P.S. – The Dark Horse copyright infringement case that we discussed some time ago was dismissed from St Louis court, but no news on whether it was refiled in California, which the St Louis judge suggested was the proper venue.

My law firmJohnson Law KC LLC, is experienced counseling individual, corporate, and nonprofit clients on entertainment law, copyright, trademark, and IP litigation issues. We work with authors, musicians, artists, photographers, bloggers, songwriters, filmmakers, and others to provide cutting edge, reliable expertise on IP. We can help you answer these questions with confidence and friendly expertise. If we can serve you with your entertainment law, copyright, or IP questions, please call (913-707-9220) or email (steve@johnsonlawkc.com) to schedule a free, convenient consultation.

(c) 2016, Stephen M. Johnson, Esq.

Copyright Attorney’s Fees

Thursday morning the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., per Justice Elena Kagan, the latest salvo in a fascinating copyright saga over John Wiley’s textbook business (see Slip, 1-2, where Justice Kagan tells the story of the plaintiff’s international entrepreneurial flair). The textbook company sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement, for illegally distributing their textbooks overseas (Copyright Act, §§106(3), 602(a)(1)), but he said the first sale doctrine applied in his defense. The case made  its way through the courts, and several years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the first sale doctrine applied to allow the resale of foreign-made or domestically-made books (Slip, 2).

The Copyright Act (§505) allows a court to award attorney’s fees to the winning party in a copyright case. Having won, the plaintiff Mr Kirtsaeng had racked up about $2 million of legal bills, fighting his way through the courts and winning. The Court took up his case again to resolve a lower court split over how to calculate a reasonable attorney’s fee – give substantial weight to objective reasonableness (2nd Cir), look at the totality of circumstances (4th Cir), or simply presuming the winning party got its legal bill paid (5th Cir). The Supreme Court sent the legal bill back to the trial court for review, instructing them to effectively blend the lower court approaches and “giv[e] substantial weight to the reasonableness of Wiley’s litigating position, but also taking into account all other relevant factors” (Slip, 12) and noting “courts must view all the circumstances of a case on their own terms, in light of the Copyright Act’s essential goals” (Slip, 11).

My law firmJohnson Law KC LLC, is experienced counseling individual, corporate, and nonprofit clients on entertainment law, copyright, trademark, and IP litigation issues. We work with authors, musicians, artists, photographers, bloggers, songwriters, filmmakers, and others to provide cutting edge, reliable expertise on IP. We can help you answer these questions with confidence and friendly expertise. If we can serve you with your entertainment law, copyright, or IP questions, please call (913-707-9220) or email (steve@johnsonlawkc.com) to schedule a free, convenient consultation.

(c) 2016, Stephen M. Johnson, Esq.

Art and War

The NYT and Daily Mail have this fascinating story about a family’s attempts to reclaim a Pissarro masterpiece looted by the Nazis during World War II. Like another family whose story is told in Woman in Gold, these cases hinge on a contract law claim. Here Claude Cassirer’s family accepted $13,000 in restitution for the painting after World War II. But it turns out the painting surfaced in 1951 in America and was circulated among private collectors. In 1993, the painting was one of many in a collection that a Spanish museum in Madrid bought from a prolific private collector for some $338 million. (It also raises the question of determining art’s ownership history – should a collector or museum have been suspicious if they saw “Berlin” stamped on a storage crate after the fall of the Third Reich?) So the Cassirer family sued the Spanish museum claiming the family actually owns the painting (the $13,000 being an admittedly paltry sum for an original Pissarro*). A California Court has ruled against the family, accepting the Spanish museum’s contract law claim, but importantly from a justice and equity perspective, urging the parties to “pause, reflect” and “work towards a mutually agreeable resolution” in light of Spain’s “commitment to achieve ‘fair and just solutions’ for victims of Nazi persecution” (Slip. Op. at 20).

My law firmJohnson Law KC LLC, is experienced counseling individual, corporate, and nonprofit clients on copyright, entertainment law, and IP issues. My law firm will be traveling to the 2015 GMA Immerse music conference in Nashville, TN with a client and hope to see you there. @GMAimmerse We work with authors, musicians, artists, photographers, bloggers, songwriters, and others to provide cutting edge, reliable expertise on IP. We can help you answer these questions with confidence and friendly expertise. If we can serve you, your business, or nonprofit organization with your copyright and IP questions, please call (913-707-9220) or email us (steve@johnsonlawkc.com) to schedule a free, convenient consultation.

(c) 2015, Stephen M. Johnson, Esq.

*In a less emotionally charged context, IP licensing or royalty fees often miss the mark. The Tolkien Estate (heir to the literary rights to The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, the Simarillion, and other works by the late great J.R.R. Tolkien) has long been locked in a legal battle over royalties with the studio who made the movies. Tolkien himself self the film rights in 1969, before the filmmaking technology existed to make the Academy Award winning Lord of the Rings trilogy or the epic Hobbit trilogy, which grossed billions at the box office. As a result, the Tolkien family has seen little, if any, royalties from the movies.

Online Streaming: The Future of Music or the Death of Paid Downloads?

Spotify has pulled Taylor Swift’s entire music catalog from its website and streaming services at Ms Swift’s request. Why would the pop music sensation pull her music from the popular streaming website right after the successful release of her latest album, 1989? Business Insider has an intriguing theory – Taylor Swift’s record label (Big Machine Label Group) is trying to pump up its value for a possible sale and wants to limit the album’s streaming to force listeners to buy the CD or download it in iTunes. (And not surprisingly for a skilled artist, entrepreneur, and investor, Ms Swift is a minority shareholder in the record label.) More precisely, the theory goes, the record label execs think they (and Ms Swift) are getting the short end of the bargain on Spotify’s royalty rates to artists and record companies. (Which could explain why we haven’t seen takedowns of the Vevo, YouTube, Pandora, and other streaming versions of Ms Swift’s work – perhaps their royalty rates are more artist friendly?)

What do you think? Whither the CD (or even iTunes album)? Is online streaming the future of music? Does online streaming signal the death knell of paid downloads? Can paid content survive in the free for all world (with ads) of YouTube et al?

My law firmJohnson Law KC LLC, is experienced counseling individual, corporate, and nonprofit clients on copyright and IP issues – whether protecting your creative art, defending you against cease and desist letters or IP litigation, or enforcing your IP rights. We work with authors, musicians, artists, photographers, bloggers, songwriters, and others to provide cutting edge, reliable expertise on IP. We can help you answer these questions with confidence and friendly expertise. If we can serve you, your business, or nonprofit organization with your copyright and IP questions, please call (913-707-9220) or email us (steve@johnsonlawkc.com) to schedule a free, convenient consultation.

(c) 2014, Stephen M. Johnson, Esq.

Literary Licensing as Extortion and Attorney’s Fees

From the How Appealing blog, we have news of this decision by Judge Posner of the 7th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals (Chicago). Judge Posner finds the Doyle Estate committing borderline “extortion” and hails the plaintiff as performing a “public service.” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Hollywood, Esq. blog has this post with commentary. We discussed Judge Posner’s recent Sherlock Holmes adventure in this post.

If my law firmJohnson Law KC LLC, can serve you, your company, or your nonprofit organization with copyright needs, please call (913.707.9220) or email me (steve@johnsonlawkc.com) to schedule a convenient free consultation.

(c) 2014, Stephen M. Johnson, Esq.

The Future of the Music Industry

Taylor Swift has this WSJ op-ed on why she believes the music industry will continue to blossom as an expression of the creative arts. Leonid Bershidsky has this Bloomberg View column on why he believes the music industry is dying.

What do you think? What’s does the future hold for the music industry? Is it dead? Will it live to see another day? Will it live in another emerging or yet-to-be-seen form? Is Taylor Swift or Leonid Bershidsky right?

If my law firm, Johnson Law KC LLC, can help you with your copyright, trademark, or IP litigation needs, call me at (913) 707-9220 or email me (steve@johnsonlawkc.com) for a complimentary, convenient consultation.

(c) 2014, Stephen M. Johnson, Esq.