Employees who are paid to create original works of authorship as part of their job do not own the copyright in the works they create during the course of their employment – the employer does. This basic principle has created an enormous amount of controversy and litigation over the years. Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man and other iconic characters in American culture, was an employee of Marvel Comics. In a long-running series of court battles, Disney, which bought Marvel’s properties, has prevailed with the argument that Marvel, not Lee, owned the characters under the doctrine of work-made-for-hire.
Work-for-hire came up again in the Stairway To Heaven litigation pending in California (see earlier post of 04/16/2015). This case continues to grind toward trial possibly in June or July, 2016. The defendants raised the issue of ownership in a pretrial motion to defeat the infringement claim brought against them by the heirs of Randy Craig Wolfe (“Randy California”), formerly of the band Spirit. In this case, Wolfe’s representative is suing Led Zeppelin for alleged copying of what the court described as “the core, repeated A-minor descending chromatic bass line structure” heard in the first two minutes of both Wolfe’s song Taurus and Stairway.
As stated by the court, Wolfe had signed an exclusive songwriter agreement with Hollenbeck Music in August, 1967. The agreement stated that Wolfe was a “writer for hire” and vested “full rights of copyright renewal” to his songs in the Hollenbeck. In December, 1967, Hollenbeck registered the copyright in Taurus and was listed as the Copyright Claimant on the official certificate. Therefore, the defendants argued, Wolfe’s representative lacked an ownership interest in the song and could not sue for infringement.
In rejecting the argument, the court noted the evidence in the record indicating that Wolfe actually wrote the song in 1966 and regularly played it in a Hollywood nightclub before he signed the agreement with Hollenbeck. Therefore the presumption of Hollenbeck’s copyright ownership established in the copyright certificate could be rebutted by the evidence and the issue of ownership would have to be resolved by the jury after hearing all the evidence at the trial.
Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin et al., Case No. CV 15-3462 RGK, U.S. District Court, Central District of California