The inverse ratio rule and music infringement claims

On Behalf of | Jun 16, 2021 | Copyright Law |

Courts have used the inverse ratio rule to determine whether an allegedly recreated musical composition sounds like a previous work. As described in Rolling Stone magazine, the rule implies that the more access an individual had to the original work, the less a plaintiff needs to show in similarities.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, decided against applying the inverse ratio rule and upheld a lower court’s decision to deny an infringement claim. The lawsuit filed by an American guitarist’s estate claimed a well-known British rock band copied a portion of the deceased musician’s recording.

The courts favored the defendants

The opening section of the UK band’s 1971 song allegedly copied a sequence played by the American guitarist on a 1968 recording. The plaintiff requested that the jury listen to both of the recorded compositions to show the inverse ratio rule should apply regardless of the sequence’s limited role in the later recording. The court denied the request based on the 1909 Copyright Act, which would have only protected the late guitarist’s copyrighted sheet music.

As noted by The Hollywood Reporter, the 1909 Act protects works deposited in sheet music form with the U.S. Copyright Office and the 1976 Copyright Act protects sound recordings. Because the recordings in question came before 1976, the latter Act did not apply. The appellate court determined the lower court did not err by failing to listen to the two recordings.

The inverse ratio rule may prove difficult to apply

A second appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court resulted in another win for the British band. The nation’s highest court rejected hearing the case.

Due to the ease with which anyone can access online media, the inverse ratio rule may prove difficult to apply. A plaintiff may also need to show that much more than an opening sequence reflects an infringement.

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