The State of US Copyright Law

There have been two very high profile copyright cases regarding music in the last year. In both cases, a jury returned the opposite result of what most copyright scholars were anticipating.

The first case, Blurred Lines involved two songs that both had party sounds, and liberal use of cow-bell-esque percussion.

The second case, involving Stairway to Heaven had two songs with surprisingly similar introductions built around the same chord structure and having similar timing and melody.

In Blurred Lines, there were statements from the alleged infringers that they were inspired by Marvin Gaye. In the Led Zeppelin case, Page and Plant denied having a recollection of hearing the song they allegedly stole from.

In Blurred Lines, the jury could hear the songs side-by-side. In the Led Zeppelin case, the jury could only rely on sheet music, as there was no federal copyright on sound recordings at the time the original song was made.

Some of the seeming inconsistency in verdict can be chalked up to these differences. But some of it may also be that these were both jury trials, and juries can disagree.

If there’s one takeaway, it’s that the Blurred Lines case did not usher in some golden age for copyright owners. It’s still going to be an uphill battle to show infringement, especially against a popular band with a lot of influence.