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Petrella Empowers Authors to Fight Old, but Ongoing Infringements

Last year the all-but-forgotten band Spirit sued Led Zeppelin over an alleged copyright infringement from 1970, claiming that the guitar opening from Led Zeppelin’s famous “Stairway to Heaven” was ripped off from a Spirit song called “Taurus.” That suit wouldn’t have been possible without the 2014 Supreme Court decision Petrella v. MGM. Neither would the case of the author of a 1960 Egyptian film composition Jay-Z sampled in his hit, “Big Pimpin’.” Most recently, Petrella enabled a photographer to come forward claiming that, since 1987, Nike has been illegally using his photograph of Michael Jordan as the basis of its “Jumping Man” logo.

We’ve supported this development from the start. In January 2014, the Authors Guild, along with seven other creator advocacy organizations, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court in the Petrella case, arguing that creators should be allowed to bring suits for copyright infringement regardless of when the infringement began, as long as the continued infringement fell within the Copyright Act’s three-year statute of limitations. Previously, actions for copyright infringement could be barred if the court determined that the copyright owner delayed too long in bringing the claim, even if the infringement was ongoing. There may be many good reasons an author delays in bringing an infringement litigation, however. He or she may not have the resources to sue at the time the infringement began, the amount of money being made by the infringer at the start may be too small to justify a lawsuit, or the author simply may not realize the infringement is occurring.

The May 2014 Supreme Court decision aligned with the Guild’s arguments and held that delays can never bar a suit for copyright infringement as long as it is brought within three years of an instance of infringement. Since the statute of limitations for copyright infringement begins anew for each individual act of infringement, victims of ongoing copyright infringement are now able to come forward and protect their rights and the ongoing value of their creative works. If these three new cases are any clue, creators have been taking notice.