By Evan Bleier / June 20, 2019

Copyright Loophole May Leave Some of Rock’s Best Riffs Unprotected

Any song registered before 1978 could potentially be up for grabs thanks to a loophole

Group portrait of Led Zeppelin in 1968. (Dick Barnatt/Redferns)
Group portrait of Led Zeppelin in 1968. (Dick Barnatt/Redferns)

In its soaring final solo, Led Zeppelin’s classic cut “Stairway to Heaven” contains one of the most recognizable pieces of music of the last 50 years.

Thanks to a legal loophole, it’s possible the memorable solo is not protected under U.S. copyright law.

Prior to 1978, songs had to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office via sheet music. The sheet music, also known as a “deposit copy,” would typically be supplied by a record company executive who would listen to a record and then condense it down into just 124 notes of piano music.

During that distillation process, many pieces of a song, like Jimmy Page’s solo on “Stairway,” were omitted and thus never officially copyrighted.

At least that’s potentially how courts could look at it should the issue ever present itself. Clearly, artists will not view it that way — and neither will their lawyers.

“The guitar solo in the studio recording of “Stairway to Heaven” is not included in the deposit copy, but is plainly original and protectable material,” Zeppelin’s lawyers wrote in a filing related to copyright issues with the song. “[T]he guitar solo became protected by federal copyright on the earlier of January 1, 1978, or the first public distribution of copyrighted sheet music with the guitar solo.”

That’s one side of it. On the other side is San Francisco-area copyright lawyer Mark Jaffe, who argues no one should assume solos with aren’t in the deposit copies of sheet music do not belong in the public domain. “Though it’s not fair, at the time you couldn’t submit the recording as the embodiment of the composition,” Jaffe told Vernon Silver of Bloomberg.

According to Silver, other classic tunes which including riffs which are not on their deposit copies include “Hotel California” by The Eagles, “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen.

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