For rock and roll fans, the opening notes to “Stairway to Heaven” are iconic. The band has amassed a huge fan base, and the song is arguably one of the most popular rock and roll songs ever written. Since the song’s 1971 release, many have speculated that the opening notes were copied from the opening notes of Spirit’s song “Taurus.” Four decades later, the heirs to Spirit have brought a suit against the band for copyright infringement. The heirs already won the first round when the judge denied Led Zepplin’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. The band’s representation unsuccessfully argued that the defendants are British citizens who reside in England and neither own property in and nor have contacts in Pennsylvania.
Though the ruling will allow the case to move forward, copyright law provides a clear statute of limitations: “no civil action shall be maintained… unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.” This limitation would “bar any recovery for alleged infringement during the first approximately 40 years of the song’s release and limit any potential recovery to new formats/releases of the recording over the last three years” and any in the future. But the Supreme Court of the United States’ recent decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. altered the way statutes of limitations apply to copyright, paving the way for this case to move forward.
In Petrella, Justice Ginsberg and the majority set the stage for this current suit by holding that the doctrine of laches does not apply in copyright. The doctrine of laches provides a defense on the ground that there has been an unreasonable, prejudicial delay in commencing suit. The majority identified the “separate-accrual rule” for copyright, which allows the statute of limitations on successive violations to run separately from each violation and each violation creates a new limitation period. The Court ultimately found that the statute of limitations did not apply because MGM continued to rerelease the film Raging Bull, and reasoned that this allows copyright owners to defer filing suit until they can determine if the litigation is worth bringing. As to the issue of damages, a plaintiff can receive retrospective relief extending only three years prior to the commencement of the suit, but also has a right to prospective injunctive relief. Petrella held that the doctrine of latches does not apply in copyright. Therefore, if Spirit’s heirs bring a claim based on the most recent releases of the Led Zeppelin song, the case will not be barred—which it would be if the doctrine of laches were available—and will likely proceed to determining liability.
While many people analyzing the issues surrounding the case focus on the claim’s likelihood and any affirmative defenses that Led Zepplin could assert, I find myself considering questions that seem largely ignored. It is not untenable to view copyright law as favoring the strong over the weak, the successful over the unsuccessful, and as providing incentives that are not necessarily effective to the promotion of progress. If the goal of copyright is to promote progress, then how can we reconcile this goal with Petrella or the current case? Is it fair to allow such a claim to succeed after so long a time lapse? How will allowing an heir to receive retrospective and prospective damages decades after a work has been released serve this goal? And in light of the goal of copyright law, why does it have inheritance policies that do not track trust and estates law?
Copyright law historically provides the heirs of authors with individual, inalienable rights. Regarding termination of transfers, heirs inherit renewal rights free and clear of any authorial intent. The author can alienate his own renewal term but cannot alienate heir’s renewal term. Copyright law also requires an inheritance if an author dies before the renewal date. Copyright law interferes significantly with trusts and estates law through its treatment of an inheritance, demanding that authors leave copyrights to heirs per stirpes in absence of a will. While the law allows heirs a “second bite at the apple” when it comes to termination of transfers, should they also have a second bite for copyright infringement claims, especially those for established works like “Stairway to Heaven”? There may ultimately be no answer to my questions, but I believe we should keep them in mind as we continue to shape copyright law.
Daryl Steiger is a J.D. Candidate, ’16, at NYU School of Law.