What Do ‘Raging Bull’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Have in Common?

Source: United Artists

Two seminal works of art are being taken to court for copyright infringement in two separate cases that question the authenticity and originality of the works and attempt to give credit and financial compensation to their rightful creators.

Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull stars Robert DeNiro as boxer Jake LaMotta, who gained notoriety as much for his skills in the ring as his tempestuous personal life. The film is considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, ranked No. 4 on the American Film Institute’s list of the best movies ever. It also represents the highest of the many high points in the long working relationship between Scorsese and DeNiro, which has produced a wealth of classic films.

Now, NPR reports, the Supreme Court is giving Paula Petrella, the daughter of deceased screenwriter Frank Petrella, the chance to sue MGM over the screenplay for Raging Bull, as she believes it infringes a previous screenplay for a film about the life of LaMotta written by her father. Frank Petrella worked with LaMotta himself to tell his own story, and one of the works that came from their partnership was a 1963 screenplay that is at the center of the current court case. Lower courts have determined that Paula Petrella waited too long to sue over the infringement, but the Supreme Court has decided it disagrees.

The screenplay written by Frank Petrella and LaMotta was sold to a production company, and that company was eventually purchased by MGM. Frank Petrella died just a year after Raging Bull finally came out. The film won two Academy Awards, including Best Actor for DeNiro, who garnered acclaim for his dedication to a role that required him to gain 60 pounds by the movie’s end after getting in great shape to film scenes in LaMotta’s boxing days.

Paula Petrella didn’t sue MGM over the matter until 2009, and two other courts determined that she’d waited too long to warrant receiving damages. On Monday, the Supreme Court decided that the continued marketing of the movie for purposes such as DVD sales warranted pursuing damages for copyright infringement, though it was noted that the length of time it took Petrella to file the suit would be taken into consideration when determining the damages that would be awarded.

Meanwhile, Led Zeppelin is being sued over the iconic opening line to the band’s most famous song, “Stairway to Heaven.” The California-based rock band Spirit was a contemporary of Zeppelin and played shows with the band on many occasions in the late 1960s. Spirit’s instrumental song “Taurus” from its debut self-titled 1968 album has a guitar line that sounds suspiciously like the opening to “Stairway.” Now Mark Andes, Spirit’s founding bassist, is teaming up with the trust of the band’s late guitarist, Randy California, who wrote the line, to sue for a songwriting credit for “Stairway.” News of the lawsuit was broken by a report from Bloomberg Businessweek.

The publication’s extensive report chronicles in detail the various times that Led Zeppelin has been faced with similar issues for songs including “Whole Lotta Love,” “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “Dazed and Confused.” The band has had to go back and give songwriting credit to others for those songs after the writer who the group either took inspiration from or ripped off (depending on whom you ask) came forward asking for compensation.

This issue has come up for many bands in the blues-rock genre of Zeppelin’s era, as the groups took inspiration from American blues music by reinventing old songs, often without giving credit to the original artists. Led Zeppelin in particular has been called out for riffing on other artists’ material and making a ton of money from it without giving credit where credit is due.

Andes has hired Philadelphia copyright lawyer Francis Alexander Malofiy, and various attorneys interviewed in the Bloomberg Businessweek report seem to believe they have a strong case. Malofiy told the publication that he’s moving to block the upcoming reissue of Led Zeppelin IV, the album on which “Stairway” appears, as Led Zeppelin is planning to reissue every one of the its albums along with a plethora of rare material throughout this year.

The two cases aren’t necessarily related, but some industry analysts believe that the outcomes of both the Raging Bull and the “Stairway to Heaven” litigation could result in older copyright infringement cases coming forward. Commenting on the Raging Bull situation to NPR, lawyer Brad Newberg said” “I think the floodgates are open now. You are going to see an explosion of people coming forward from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, coming out of the woodwork to say that hit songs, movies, TV shows, works like that, that are still in the marketplace, belong to them, and they want a share of the profits.”

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