Back in June of 2014, I wrote about a lawsuit by the estate of Randy Craig Wolfe alleging that Led Zeppelin’s 1971 “Stairway to Heaven” infringed the copyrighted 1967 song “Taurus” written by Wolfe and performed by his band, Spirit. Initially filed in Pennsylvania, the case was transferred to the Central District of California. Nearly two years later, the case is now set to go to trial.
On April 8, the court issued an order denying the defendant’s motions for judgment as a matter of law on the copyright infringement claim. There are many issues covered in the opinion, but there are four points of particular interest some of which we have discussed here before.

Laches May Not Limit A Copyright Claim, But There Are Still Limits

As anticipated, the court followed the Supreme Court’s lead in Petrella v. MGM, holding that the equitable doctrine of laches could not apply to prevent this suit even though the original act of alleged infringement happened more than 40 years prior to the lawsuit. The court noted that the release of a re-mastered version of the song in 2014 was an infringing act that started a new statutory three-year limitations period. Notably, the court held that the limitations period barred claims against John Paul Jones, Super Hype Publishing, and Warner Music Group because none of those defendants were involved in the publication of the re-mastered version of the song.

Abandonment Is An Issue Of Fact

As happened in the Happy Birthday case, the court refused to find abandonment of the copyright as a matter of law based on reported public statements. Defendants submitted an April 1991 article that quoted Wolfe saying he would let Led Zeppelin “have the beginning of ‘Taurus’ for their song without a lawsuit” along with audio recordings of the interview and testimony from the journalist who conducted the interview. The court held that plaintiff had produced enough contrary evidence to show that Wolfe did not act in a manner consistent with abandonment, including testimony about Wolfe contemplating lawsuits against Led Zeppelin after that interview.

Work for Hire or Beneficial Owner?

Fact discovery revealed a dispute over whether Wolfe owned the “Taurus” copyright or whether the song was a work for hire created under Wolfe’s exclusive songwriter agreement with Hollenbeck Music. That exclusive songwriter agreement provided that any songs Wolfe wrote after signing the agreement were works for hire under copyright law. It also contained a provision assigning rights in Wolfe’s existing works to Hollenbeck in exchange for payment of royalties.

Plaintiff claims, based on testimony from surviving band members and relatives, that Wolfe wrote the song before signing the agreement with Hollenbeck. But the defendants claim that Wolfe wrote the song after he signed the agreement, making it a work for hire. If that is the case, then Hollenbeck would be the author and owner of the copyright, and the plaintiff would not have any standing to sue for infringement.

The defendants asked for summary judgment that “Taurus” was a work for hire based on the fact that that Hollenbeck filed a copyright registration in the song in December of 1967, listing itself as claimant and Wolfe as the author. But the court refused, noting that that a plausible interpretation of the facts could lead a jury to find that Wolfe owned the copyright in the song and merely assigned his existing rights to Hollenbeck under the agreement in exchange for royalties. Such an assignment would make Wolfe a “beneficial owner” under copyright law, meaning that Wolfe, and his estate standing in his shoes, has standing to sue for infringement.

Sound Recordings Don’t Matter To Pre-1972 Music Copyrights

If you followed the evidentiary rulings in the “Blurred Lines” case, also in the Central District of California, you might remember that the court there ruled that only the musical composition, i.e., the sheet music, of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” and not the sound recording could be the basis of a copyright infringement claim in that case. Defendants raised the same issue here, obtaining the same result. Because Congress only extended copyright protection to sound recordings fixed after February 15, 1972, the plaintiff can only rely on the written musical composition. So, as in the dispute over “Blurred Lines,” the sound clips making the rounds on the Internet for people to compare will not be at the heart of the case, only the written music will be compared. The evidentiary ruling in the “Blurred Lines” case ultimately did not help the defendants in that case. Whether a different result will occur here remains to be seen.

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