In June 2016, a jury unanimously decided that Led Zeppelin did not commit copyright infringement with its popular 1970s hit “Stairway to Heaven.” Widely considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time, the opening phrase of “Stairway” is believed to bear a significant resemblance to Spirit’s “Taurus,” a song released two years prior. The jury’s decision reinforced Led Zeppelin’s song as legendary, and cemented the band’s legacy.
In a similar case, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams recently faced the opposite outcome. A jury ruled that the musicians behind “Blurred Lines” owed Marvin Gaye’s estate $7.3 million for copyright infringement—in addition to ongoing royalties from the hit song. Thicke and Williams have recently appealed the verdict, with the backing of over 200 musicians, claiming the decision could have an adverse effect on artists’ creativity.
What do the two lawsuits have in common? Spirit and Marvin Gaye had obtained copyrights for their work, allowing them (through their estates) to pursue legal action in the case of infringement.
The Benefits of Copyright Law
As a composer, producer, or artist, copyrighting your work is the first step to fully protecting it. Without registering your song, recording, or artwork with the U.S. Copyright Office, you can’t bring an infringement suit if you suspect a violation.
Today, you are already one step ahead of Spirit and Marvin Gaye: any works released after 1978 gain protection under U.S. copyright law as soon as your original work is fixed in a tangible medium (e.g., staff paper, recordings, computer files). Registration is not required. However, it is much easier to win an infringement case and collect all damages if you register your copyright immediately. Registration validates your ownership of the work, while putting potential infringers on notice—which can deter them from copying your piece, and enable them to contact you to obtain legitimate permission and licenses to use it.
With registration, if somebody infringes on your work, you are entitled to file a federal lawsuit seeking statutory and actual damages, the infringer’s profits, as well as your attorney fees. Other protections can include temporary injunctions to prevent further violations.
File your copyright sooner rather than later—fully protecting your composition, recording, or work from potential infringement. This information is brought to you by Carl Wilson of the Law Office of William C. Wilson.