This week, the United States Supreme Court issued an opinion of great importance to those wishing to enforce their copyrights. In Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., the Supreme Court clarified confusion among lower courts about whether the doctrine of laches (also known as unreasonable delay) could bar a lawsuit for copyright infringement. While the court’s opinion may read to lay persons as legal mumbo-jumbo, it is of significant importance to copyright owners.
In Petrella, the copyright owners of the screenplay for “Raging Bull,” the movie directed by Martin Scorsese in 1980, sued MGM for damages resulting from the studio’s infringement. Surely, you may ask, MGM had rights to the screenplay. Well, at one time it did. Petrella’s father and his co-author boxer, Jake LaMotta. assigned the rights to MGM, which registered the copyright in 1980. However, when Petrella died in 1981, by law, the rights reverted back to his daughter. MGM failed to obtain the rights after that event. Petrella’s daughter waited until 2009 to sue the studio. Because of her delay, MGM argued that her lawsuit is barred by the doctrine of “laches” or unreasonable delay. The lower courts agreed but not the Supreme Court. The Supremes held that laches was irrelevant to infringement, which is controlled by a three-year statue of limitations, and Petrella had a right to sue for any infringements – of which there were many – that occurred within the three-year period preceding her filing of the lawsuit.
During the same week that the Supreme Court handed down this decision, we also learned that the estate of Randy California, guitarist in the band Spirit, is suing Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement, claiming that the one of the greatest rock songs ever written, “Stairway to Heaven” uses riffs that California wrote for an instrumental called “Taurus.” Stairway to Heaven was written in 1970, two years after Led Zeppelin and Spirit “shared stages” together during their U.S. tour. Regardless of the lawsuits merits, it would appear that the estate of Randy California unreasonably delayed its lawsuit, particularly since it has been bandied about for years that Jimmy Page, the author of Stairway to Heaven, stole the opening riff from Randy California. After Petrella, however, the 40 year delay does not appear to be a hindrance.
— Adam G. Garson, Esq.