From "Stairway to Heaven" to "Damn Girl": 'Raging Bull' Remains Center Stage in Copyright Fights

Attorneys for Justin Timberlake and Will.i.am take a page from Led Zeppelin's legal battle.
Chris Polk/FilmMagic
Will.i.am and Justin Timberlake

Just two years after the Supreme Court changed the copyright game by holding in Petrella that time doesn't necessarily bar all lawsuits, we're already seeing the second generation of its effects.

In a brief filed Friday, "Damn Girl" defense attorneys cite the "Stairway to Heaven" jury instructions (which cited Petrella). 

This fight began in February, when Janis McQuinton, the heir of disco artist Perry Kibble, sued Justin Timberlake and Will.i.am (Will Adams) for copyright infringement. She claimed their hit copied her brother's music from "A New Day Is Here At Last."

Robert Jacobs, attorney for Adams and BMG, moved to dismiss the lawsuit in July — arguing that not only did the duo license "A New Day" and credit its singer J.C. Davis on the album, but also that McQuinton's request for a decade's worth of damages is unprecedented.

Interestingly, each side argues Petrella works in its favor.

In the 2014 decision, the high court ruled that the heir of writer Frank Petrella could sue MGM for copyright infringement for Raging Bull — nearly two decades after the films release. The decision concerned the defense of "laches," which is essentially the argument that an unreasonable delay in bringing a claim results in prejudice to the defendant. Petrella held that laches don't preclude claims brought within the three-year statute of limitations.

For McQuinton, Petrella allowed a 2016 lawsuit related to a 2006 song. For Timberlake and Adams, it could limit any damages to those incurred since 2013. 

Jacobs argues Petrella limits any potential award by holding "a successful plaintiff can gain retrospective relief only three years back from the time of suit. No recovery may be had for infringement in earlier years."

However, McQuinton argues Petrella's "three-year look back" is merely dicta, not binding case law, and hasn't stopped courts from considering damages outside of that window. Further, she says she also has on her side the discovery rule, which starts the clock on statute of limitations when infringement is first discovered. (Read the full opposition here.)

Attorneys for the musicians contend she's ignoring the Copyright Act and cherry-picking case law. 

"Despite the wide net it casts, Plaintiff fails to mention that the jury instructions given just 10 weeks ago in the Ninth Circuit case targeting Led Zeppelin’s song 'Stairway To Heaven' – one of the most prominent music infringement cases in history – expressly limited the potential recovery of the plaintiff there to the three-year period prior to suit in light of Petrella," writes Jacobs.

Those instructions tell jurors they can't award "profits attributable to alleged infringements that occurred before May 31, 2011” — the date three years prior to the suit.  

Both sides have requested oral arguments on the motion to dismiss, but a hearing date has not yet been set. 

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