Drawing the Line between Originality and Influence with reference to Michael Skidmore V. Led Zeppelin

Introduction

Copyright is explained in Section 102 of Chapter 1 of Title 17 of the United States Code, where it states that Copyright Protection supports original work of authorship in any tangible form of expression, which is known now or later developed, from which they can be reproduced, perceived or communicated either directly or through machines or devices. There are numerous numbers of forms of copyright.[1] The one which I’m going to discuss is music.

Randy Wolfe who was also known as Randy California, was a guitarist of the band of Southern California named Spirit. He wrote an instrumental song called Taurus in 1966, which was recorded in 1967 and was released in 1968. Taurus was registered with the United States Copyright Office as an unpublished musical composition and it was issued under the 1909 Copyright Act.[2] Agent of Wolfe registered a copyright claim by only depositing a single page of sheet music of Taurus with the office. Led Zeppelin, a British Rock band formed in 1968 created a song called Stairway to Heaven. After 43 years of the release of the song, Michael Skidmore on behalf of Randy Wolfe claimed that the song Stairway to Heaven was copied from the song Taurus especially the portion of Jimmy Page the guitarist and Robert Plant the vocalist. Even the bass player of Spirit Mark Andes said that Led Zeppelin heard the song Taurus when they were on a tour with the Spirit in the US which was between 1968-69.[3]

Legal Issues Dealt

The US Copyright Act of 1909 was specific, registration of an unpublished musical work would be obtained by depositing the copy of the complete work and claiming the copyright.[4] So, under the act of 1909 to claim copyright, the work should be reduced to sheet music, as it was done by Randy Wolfe. The sound recording became a part of copyright only after 1972, which was fixed on 15 February 1972. The status of the copyright of Taurus remained the same as the amendment didn’t change the requirements of the previous 1909 Act.[5] But after the Copyright Act of 1976, sound recordings qualified as a publication of musical composition.[6] Skidmore suggested that the copyright protects much more than the sheet of music, it’s just the proof as it is archival in nature and it is kind of a reference rather than a definite filing. Under the 1909 Act, the sheet music would only be protected and the author at his/her own interest should develop the sheet music which would include everything. Skidmore said in his argument that it’s impractical if someone compares the sheet music with a sound recording of the infringed work, Kevin Hanson who is Skidmore’s master guitarist played Taurus deposit copy by interpreting it.  Michael Skidmore also made an important point that most of the musicians don’t read music as it’s time-consuming and that time it was quite expensive to a music sheet. Michael also raised an important issue of a situation where the deposit copy gets destroyed or stolen. These arguments just show how ambiguous the Copyright Act of 1909 was. During the trial, Jimmy Page testified and he admitted that he had the copy of the album that contained Taurus, and the jury found that both of the Page and Plant had access to Taurus before they released Stairway to Heaven. But the US Court for appeal said that the district court didn’t err while giving their judgement, as by the 1909 Act sound recordings were not protected only the deposit copy was protected and Led Zeppelin didn’t have the access to the copy but they had the access to the recording.[7]This loophole in the 1909 Act and the later amendment of the Act in 1976  didn’t change the requirements of the previous Act which destroyed Randy Wolfe, which eventually helped Led Zeppelin to exploit the musician and earned fame and money.

How the old musicians are being exploited by the new ones

There are many more cases other than Led Zeppelin where the new musicians exploited the old ones. In some, the old ones used to get justice whereas, in most of the cases they didn’t use to get it, it all depended on the discretion of the judges. In one case,[8] Isley Brothers USA’s one of the well-known soul and Motown artists of the 1960s, wrote and recorded a song in 1964 called “Love is a Wonderful Thing”. Most of their songs were hit, but this song didn’t feature in the top 100 and was not a hit. The song was not released on an album, it was played on the radio and was released on a compact disc. Michael Bolton, a singer and songwriter of the late ’80s and early ’90s, released a song in 1991 with the same name “Love is a Wonderful Thing”. His song was a hit as it was 49th on Billboard’s Year-end pop chart.  Bolton gained fame after the release of the song, and from a very young age he was a fan of soul music and the Isley song was played on the radio when Bolton was 13 years old. Three Boys Music Corporation filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the Bolton’s and Goldmark for damages. They were lucky enough that the court by extrinsic test and intrinsic test of substantial similarity decided that it was not an independent work of Bolton and Goldmark as they used the title phrase, lyric, rhythm, instrumental figures and also the verse-chorus relationship. The court said that they infringed the copyright of Isley Brothers but the court said that the profit that they’ll get is only the profits which are attributable to the infringement.[9] The Isley Brothers were really lucky as they got the profits which they were entitled to, as most of the time the Copyright system doesn’t provide the fair compensation to the original musicians or performers that they deserve.

Copyright Infringement of Music in Bollywood

Bollywood denotes the Hindi speaking sector of the Indian film and music industry. Copyright enforcement is lenient in India if compared with other countries, this gives the song composers immense advantage as they inspire themselves from the music of the West. But in the past few decades, the creators have crossed the line of being inspired by Western Music to just simply copying it. If we listen to a song named “Geela Geela” from the movie Aitraaz, we can clearly identify that the music was directly taken from Robert Sylvester Kelly’s song “Thoia Thoing”. And if we dig deeper we will find hundreds of cases like this.[10]

Recently Badshah, a Bollywood rapper, was caught with plagiarism when his new song ‘Genda Phool’ was released. The melody and the lyrics of some parts of the song was a full copy of an old Bengali folk song made in 1972 named ‘Boroloker Biti Lo’ whose original composer and singer is Ratan Kahar. Ratan Kahar lives far away from the spotlight and is very poor, and his works are not registered in the copyright bodies. Badshah after releasing his song earned millions, but nowhere in the whole song credential was given to Ratan Kahar, the original composer. Few netizens spotted and reported that the original creator of the song is Ratan Kahar and they led a movement against Badshah, which eventually forced Badshah to admit that Ratan Kahar is the original creator and by seeing his condition Badshah deposited 5lakh Rupees in Ratan Kahar’s bank account.

Conclusion

In the twenty-first century, the actual music lovers are facing the problem, because the technology is so advanced that the composers are easily getting access to all the old music, melodies, etc. Everything is available on the internet, so instead of being influenced by the legendary musicians, the musicians of this generation just copy their works without even giving them their credit. So, their main motive is to make money even by infringing someone’s copyright. This needs to stop and there should be more strict laws in Intellectual Property Rights and it should be properly applied. This would help both, the families of Legendary musicians in earning royalties and protecting their works and it will also help the actual music lovers to get exposed to new music.

[1] 17 US Code,2018   § 102

[2] The US Copyright Act, 1909

[3] Skidmore v. Zeppelin, No. 16-56057 (9th Cir. 2020)

[4] The US Copyright Act,1909, §11

[5] 17 US Code,2018   §301(c)

[6] 17 US Code,2018   §101

[7] Supra note 3

[8] Three Boys Music Corporation v. Michael Bolton 212 F.3d 477 (9th Cir. 2000)

[9] 17 U.S.C. § 504(b) (1994)

[10] Navdeep Kaur Tucker, Musical Copyright Infringement in Bollywood Music, Perspectives on a Problem, 26 Ent. & Sports Law. 18 (2008).


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Satyaki Majumdar

Satyaki Majumdar

Satyaki Majumdar is a second-year law student of National University of Juridical Science(NUJS), Kolkata. His areas of interest are IP Law, Constitutional Law, and International Law. He recently worked on a paper relating to the Black Lives Matter movement which is important for the fight against racism. He has also worked on contemporary issues relating to IT Law. He can be reached at majumdarsatyaki@gmail.com.

3 thoughts on “Drawing the Line between Originality and Influence with reference to Michael Skidmore V. Led Zeppelin

    1. I’ve done extensive research by using some journals, Statutes and some newspaper articles which I have already cited. If you want I can send you my research compendium.

      Like

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