Members of the rock band Led Zeppelin asked a California judge to throw out a plagiarism lawsuit regarding one of the band’s hit songs.
During testimony, Led Zeppelin songwriter and guitarist Jimmy Page vigorously denied allegations that the 1971 classic Stairway to Heaven was based on Taurus, an instrumental-only song on a 1968 album from Spirit. “I did not hear Taurus until 2014,” he insisted.
Lawyers for the band also advanced several legal arguments. First, they contend that Randy Craig Wolfe – Spirit’s guitarist – signed a 1967 contract with Olde Records that made him a “writer for hire” who expressly waived “full rights of copyright renewal.” Secondly, in a 1991 interview, the now-deceased Mr. Wolfe said “I’ll let them have the beginning of Taurus for their song without a lawsuit.” Third, the band invoked the equitable defense of laches, due to the roughly 40-year span between Taurus/Stairway and the lawsuit.
Finally, “[t]here is no substantial similarity in the works’ structures,” according to the band’s motion.
Legal Issues in the Creative Process
Much art is collaborative, to one extent or another. During a jam session, a musician may recommend replacing a G chord with an Am. Or, during lunch one day, Writer A may mention a character or storyline that Writer B subconsciously incorporates into a later work.
At some point, such collaboration crosses the line and becomes plagiarism or copyright infringement. Many times, these matters are fact questions for the jury, as is the legal effect of an out-of-court oral waiver and what a contract did or did not mean to the parties at the time it was signed.
But laches is different. This doctrine is essentially the equitable version of statute of limitations: the defendants claim that so much time has passed between the event and the lawsuit that they have been “ambushed” by that action.
The Supreme Court actually addressed this issue in Petrella v. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which is better known as the Raging Bull case. In 1963, a number of years before the Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese biopic was released in 1980, writer Frank Petrella collaborated with Mr. LaMotta in a screenplay; that screenplay later became a book in 1970. In 1991, Paula Petrella renewed the copyright on her father’s 1963 screenplay, but not on the book. Eighteen years later, Ms. Petrella sued MGM, claiming that she was entitled to a share of Raging Bull’s profits.
The district court threw out the lawsuit, on the grounds that Ms. Petrella had waited too long to file her lawsuit and prejudiced MGM in the process; the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.
Writing for a 6-3 majority, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reinstated the suit. The Court essentially held that MGM’s interpretation of laches was far too expansive, and that individuals who participate in the creative process are entitled to compensation absent extraordinary circumstances to the contrary. Furthermore, Justice Ginsburg ruled that MGM intentionally mislead Ms. Petrella during the process, thus contributing to the filing delay.
Know Your Legal Rights
Participants in the creative process have legal rights and are entitled to a fair share of compensation depending on the circumstances of the collaboration. For a confidential consultation with an entertainment lawyer in Chicago, contact the Law Offices of Howard C. Berkson, LLC.