By copyright and intellectual property attorney Wallace E. J. Collins III, Esq.
According to Billboard, history might record Jay Z as being one of the first victims of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last May to allow Paula Petrella to sue MGM and 20th Century Fox over the Martin Scorsese film, Raging Bull. In a copyright dispute over the movie "Raging Bull", the U.S. Supreme Court held that the case could continue despite the substantial passage of time, or what is legally referred to as the “laches” defense. In a 6-3 decision the Court held that plaintiff Paula Petrella, daughter of the late screenwriter Frank Petrella, did not wait too long to file her lawsuit against MGM claiming an interest in the film.
Now, based on the Supreme Court’s decision, the Judge in Jay Z’s case has reversed an earlier ruling limiting the scope of the lawsuit and opened the door to the plaintiff recovering profits from the exploitation of Jay Z’s recording of “Big Pimpin.”
In the “Raging Bull” case, the plaintiff's father had collaborated with the legendary boxer Jake LaMotta on a book and several screenplays which were the basis for the Oscar-winning movie. When the plaintiff's father died in 1981 the copyrights were inherited by his daughter. His daughter sued MGM in 2009 seeking royalties from continuing commercial use of the film. First, a Federal judge had held that she had waited too long because she had been aware of the potential to file a lawsuit as early as 1991. Then, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, relying on the studio's argument that the plaintiff's delay of nearly two decades in bringing the case was unreasonable. Now, however, the Supreme Court has reversed and is providing plaintiff with the opportunity to continue her copyright infringement lawsuit.
Jay Z has been involved in a complicated, long-running lawsuit over his sampling of “Khosara, Khosara,” from the 1960 Egyptian film Fata Ahlami, used in his 2000 mega-hit song, “Big Pimpin.” The plaintiff in the case is the nephew of late Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi who alleges that Jay Z mutilated the original song. Although Judge Snyder in Jay Z’s case had previously limited the scope of the lawsuit based on laches, due to the Supreme Court’s “Raging Bull” decision she recently altered her order. The Judge stated that the Supreme Court’s decision “represents a substantial change in the law governing laches,” and applying it to the lawsuit over “Big Pimpin,” opens the door to the plaintiff recovering profits from the recent exploitation of “Big Pimpin.” The Judge vacated her prior holding that laches bars plaintiff’s claims. The Supreme Court held that in “extraordinary circumstances,” laches could still bar a copyright plaintiff from obtaining certain types of relief, but Judge Snyder rejected Jay Z’s arguments that the death of a key witness and the substantial investment in “Big Pimpin” rises to that level. The Judge in Jay Z’s case refused to bar the plaintiff from pursuing profits at this stage, but did not rule it out at a later stage after further investigation in the case.
For a long time, film and television studios and major record companies have relied on the legal doctrine of unreasonable delay to prevent relatives, estates, and other claimants from bringing copyright claims years or even decades after the products had been released. The statute of limitations under US copyright law requires that lawsuits must be commenced within three years of an infringing act and every new release of a product and the ongoing exploitation of a copyright essentially resets the three year clock for copyright purposes. In other words, if a plaintiff sued, even after decades, they would only be entitled to damages going back three years (although they could possibly secure a share of income going forward into the future). However, many cases were dismissed under other legal arguments, such as laches, which would permit a Court to dismiss a case brought too many years after the original infringing act (which, in effect, would nullify the three year rolling statute of limitations).
What the case law recognizes now is that those who, for whatever reason, might have been unable (or unaware of their right) to commence a lawsuit for their share of copyright income now have a foot in the door. The rolling three-year copyright protection is fair to artists, authors and other creators of copyrights, and gives them incentive to create their works and the right to fight for a fair share of the income derived from the use and exploitation thereof.
"Wallace Collins is a New York lawyer specializing in entertainment, copyright, trademark and internet law. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before attending Fordham Law School."
[Raging Bull poster via Wikipedia.]