How to value a small piece of a famous rock song

A recent lawsuit alleged that one of the top-selling rock acts of all time stole a piece of its signature song from another songwriter. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971) opens with a “riff” (a progression of chords) that the plaintiffs claimed was lifted from a 1967 song “Taurus” by the band Spirit. But the jury sided with Led Zeppelin and found that there was no infringement.

If the jury had sided with the plaintiff, it would have had to carve out the value of the riff that only forms part of the song. BVWire asked Michael Pellegrino (Pellegrino & Associates), a valuation expert (and musician) who specializes in intellectual property, for some insights into some of the thoughts behind how this would have been determined.

Tricky process: “Apportioning value in a song is tricky as many songs share common themes,” says Pellegrino, the author of BVR’s Guide to Intellectual Property Valuation. The jury’s task would have been difficult because “Stairway to Heaven” “is an epic song,” Pellegrino points out. “The song is about eight minutes in length, but the value of a song is not necessarily the sum of its musical parts. What is it that makes ‘Stairway to Heaven’ what it is? Is it the opening progression, the lyrics, John Bonham’s drum entrance, Jimmy Page’s guitar solo, Robert Plant’s soft entrance or his hard finish, the crescendo as the song progresses, or Heart’s amazing cover of it at the Kennedy Center in December 2012? There is no clear cut formula and the answer depends on the context and perspective. The easiest apportionment factor one might consider is to allocate the duration of the accused portion of the song to its total length to arrive at a percentage. So of the accused portion of the song is 60 seconds on a 180-second song, then the apportionment would be a straight 33% allocation (60 seconds/180 seconds). This is likely an approach a jury might consider because it is easy to contemplate and calculate.”

Pellegrino says there are also some complicating factors; for these and more comments, see the BVWire.