Music, Deposit Copies, and Unanswered Questions After Skidmore V. Led Zeppelin

Authored by: Bob Clarida

The Routledge Companion to Copyright and Creativity in the 21st Century

Print publication date:  November  2020
Online publication date:  November  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138999251
eBook ISBN: 9781315658445
Adobe ISBN:


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One consequential ruling in the Ninth Circuit’s two most high-profile music infringement cases in years, Williams v. Gaye and Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, is the holding in Zeppelin that the scope of copyright in an unpublished pre-1978 musical composition is determined solely by the content of written deposit copy on file with the Copyright Office. This essay argues that the exclusive reliance on notation is problematic because for most songs, the notation is not the whole truth. If the scope of a musical work copyright is limited to the details incorporated into the notation submitted to the Copyright Office, and those details are materially incomplete, relative to the recorded version of the work, it might be impossible for the composer to show an infringement of other significant elements of original authorship contained in the recorded version, no matter how flagrant the defendant’s copying of those other elements. The Zeppelin determination says that there is no other truth. Until the scope of copyright in a work registered before 1978 includes the totality of admissible evidence in that case (not simply what was on file with the Copyright Office), composers must protect elements of their work that are not present in the notation.

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