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Leaders in Litigation

Who owns rock-and-roll's greatest solos?

Most business owners understand the value of patents, trademarks and other forms of intellectual property. So it likely comes as no surprise that the world's most iconic rock songs can command some hefty licensing fees. But what if you learned that dozens of the genre's greatest solos could be free for the taking?

According to an article from Bloomberg Businessweek, that was one possible takeaway from a plagiarism case against Led Zeppelin. The rock group successfully fended off the charges but may have inadvertently made it easier for other people to copy their music-and the works of many other artists, as well. The case isn't yet settled. Both sides have filed appeals. But the suit already shows the complexity of intellectual property law and the importance of protecting your work.

Why does it matter when the song was recorded?

The case hinged in part on the changes to U.S. copyright law that went into effect January 1, 1978. They guaranteed that the law would automatically protect works "created and fixed in a tangible medium of expression," such as audio recordings. Prior to that time, however, songs-such as the one Led Zeppelin had been accused of plagiarizing-needed to be registered as sheet music. If the sheet music didn't show an improved solo, the solo might be fair game.

There are still legal risks involved with copying musical solos from before 1978. But the shrewd reader will recognize how musicians may have put their financial interests at risk by not securing their materials.

How can you protect your intellectual property?

Nearly every business relies upon some form of intellectual property. You need some way to differentiate yourself from competitors, and that often means an innovative bit of software, some cutting-edge hardware, a unique business strategy or a memorable marketing campaign. Whatever innovations you develop, there are several ways you can protect them:

  • Patent them. Patenting your invention can prevent others from developing, using or selling the same type of device. Several recent settlements, including Apple's settlement with Qualcomm, have upheld and reinforced the value of U.S. patents.
  • Copyright them. Like patents, but for creative works. Copyrights limit others' ability to steal or use your words, music or other ideas without your express permission.
  • Trademark them. Certain symbols and phrases earn immediate recognition and separate brands from their competitors. Everyone recognizes Nike's trademarked swoop and McDonald's golden arches. Trademarking your company logo and motto may help you strengthen your brand identity.
  • Guard your trade secrets. Most states, including Colorado, recognize that businesses have valuable trade secrets and that the unfair disclosure of those secrets can have negative financial consequences. The law protects those who take measures to guard their secrets, and you may be able to double-up on your protection by using valid non-disclosure agreements.

Whether you use one or more of these protections, it's important to remember that they don't work all by themselves. You need to enforce them. Generally, this means gathering evidence of the infringement, detailing the ways the infringement hurts your business and moving forward with a clear goal for the settlement or ruling.

Not every intellectual property case gets a soundtrack

While most intellectual property disputes never involve any of the world's most iconic and epic guitar riffs, that may be a good thing. You want your intellectual property defense to be a bit more cut-and-dry than the lengthy Led Zeppelin plagiarism suit. Your first step is likely to review the available protections. Then you could take full advantage of the options that suit you best.

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