A Bittersweet Copyright Story
A story that was widely reported on in the United Kingdom (“UK”) gives us an interesting insight into the world of copyright.
A long time ago – some 22 years to be precise – a songwriter by the name of Richard Ashcroft assigned (transferred) the copyright in a hugely successful song calledBitter Sweet Symphonyperformed by a band called The Verve. If no bells are ringing, I suggest that you Google the song, chances are you will recognise it immediately. The copyright was assigned to two people, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
As with many rock music stories, things are a bit fuzzy. However, it seems that Ashcroft was persuaded that he had himself infringed the copyright in the Rolling Stones’ songThe Last Time, by incorporating a ten-second orchestral version of that song inBitter Sweet Symphony. So, Ashcroft assigned his copyright inBitter Sweet Symphony, seemingly as a form of recompense. The upshot, of course, was that Ashcroft did not profit much from a song that apparently sold more than 1 200 000 copies in the UK alone.
But time was on Ashcroft’s side. Jagger and Richards have finally re-assigned (returned) the copyright inBitter Sweet Symphonyto Ashcroft. This decision was seemingly linked to the fact that Ashcroft was to receive a music Lifetime Achievement Award. At last, it seems, Ashcroft stands to make some money from hismagnum opus.
There are lessons to be learned from this story. For example:
On a more general level, it’s important to know that:
Copyright is a highly specialist field, and expert advice really is necessary. Copyright can be very technical, especially when it comes to music. We saw this in the case of Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece,Stairway to Heaven.The issue, in this case, was whether Led Zeppelin’s 1971 rock classic infringed the copyright in a 1967 song calledSpiritby the band Taurus. The evidence showed that it was very likely that Led Zeppelin had known of the songSpiritbecause they had performed at a concert with Taurus in 1970.
As withBitter Sweet Symphony, theStairway to Heavencase revolved around a small portion of the song, namely the famous opening chord sequence. A jury in California decided that the opening sequence ofStairway to Heavenwas not similar to a particular sequence inSpirit. Crucially, the jury accepted the argument that the chord progression or sequence in issue was a common one.
But on appeal, a court found that the trial judge had advised the jury badly. In particular, the judge had failed to make it clear that, although copyright law might not protect individual elements such as notes or scales, it can protect combinations or sequences if they are original. The judge had also failed to make it clear that copyright can protect chromatic scales, arpeggios or short sequences of three notes. As we said, highly technical stuff. That case still goes on!
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