Metro-Goldwyn Mayer produced and released “Raging Bull” in 1980.  This iconic film was directed by Martin Scorsese and features Robert De Niro as “Jake La Motta,” a boxer that destroys his family by taking the same attitude that makes him a champion home.  For this film, Robert De Niro won an Academy Award.  While “Raging Bull” was not a commercial success (only earning $24 million off of an $18 million budget), it was critically acclaimed and continues to be thought as one of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s best films.  Yet recently, there has been a dispute over whether the copyright is owned by Frank Petrella, the author of two screenplays and a book about Jake La Motta, or MGM.

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Today, the U.S. Supreme Court in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. et al. ruled on a critical issue concerning the law of copyright which will allow Frank Petrella’s daughter to continue her suit for copyright infringement of “Raging Bull.”  In 1963, Frank Petrella in collaboration with Jake La Motta wrote a screenplay portraying the life of Jake La Motta.  He would later go on to write a book and another screenplay, but the 1963 screenplay is the focus this suit.  The copyright to the 1963 screenplay listed Frank Petrella as the sole author, but stated that Jake La Motta worked in collaboration on the screenplay.  In 1976, Frank Petrella and Jake La Motta assigned their rights to the copyrighted works mentioned above to Chartoff-Winkler Productions, Inc.  United Artists, a subsidiary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, purchased the motion picture rights to the book and both screenplays.  The parties declared that the rights agreed to in the contract were “exclusive and forever, including all periods of copyright, renewals and extensions thereof.”

In 1981, Frank Petrella died while all the copyrights discussed above were still in the initial period of the copyright.  Under copyright law prior to 1978, a copyright-holder has an initial period of 28 years during which s/he can hold onto the copyright and an additional period of 67 years if the copyright-holder renews the copyright.  Here, Paula Petrella, upon learning of the decision in Stewart v. Abend (1990) that held that a copyright-holder’s heirs inherit the right to renew the copyright, met with a Top Los Angeles Lawyer to renew the copyright that she inherited to the 1963 screenplay.  In 1991, Paula Petrella renewed the copyright.  In 1998, she informed MGM that Paula Petrell has a copyright to the 1963 screenplay and that “Raging Bull” infringed on her copyright.  In 2009, Paula Petrella sued MGM for copyright infringement.  The District Court dismissed the suit based on the theory of laches (that Paula Petrella unreasonably delayed her suit) and the Ninth Circuit affirmed its decision.

The Court took this case to determine if the theory of laches should be applied in copyright cases and if this doctrine required that this suit be dismissed.  Laches is a theory of legal equity that holds that if a plaintiff has unreasonably delayed filing a suit, then s/he is barred from pursuing the suit.  Generally, this legal theory applies to causes of action that do not have statute of limitations.  Copyright law is unique in that the law was enacted prior to the creation of a federal statute of limitations for it.  Therefore, courts applied different state statute of limitations and sometimes allowed the theory of laches to be used.  Then in 1957, the Congress created a three-year statute of limitations.  The statute of limitations limited the plaintiff to a recovery of income from the copyrighted material for the past three years.

Here, the Court determined that the doctrine of laches should not be applied to copyright infringement actions that request a relief only for the period within the statute of limitations.  First, the Court focuses on the fact that the doctrine of laches is not supposed to be applied to laws that have a statute of limitations. Next, the Court refutes the arguments that MGM makes in favor of allowing laches to be used to dismiss copyright infringement actions.  MGM claims that a defendant should be able to use the doctrine of laches to dismiss any legal action even if there is a statute of limitations.  The Court rejects this argument because it would sometimes bar a suit even if the lawsuit is filed within the statute of limitations, which would make the judicial branch overrule a decision by Congress to give the plaintiff the whole period of the statute of limitations.  MGM also argues that preventing a defendant from using the theory of laches allows a copyright-holder to sit on his/her claims until the infringer starts making money off of the copyright infringement.  The Court sees no problem with copyright-holders waiting to pursue an infringement suit. Instead it states that requiring copyright-holders to try every minor infringement in order to not lose their claims would lead to hundreds of more cases that are unnecessary because the infringement is minor.  Finally, MGM argues that delaying copyright suits can lead to a loss of evidence that defendants would need to combat liability.  The Court is sympathetic to this concern of MGM’s, but notes that the copyright registration is so complete that there is little need for any evidence other than that from the U.S. Copyright Office.  Therefore, the Court reverses the trial court dismissal of this case and remands it for trial.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Petrella has clarified that the theory of laches is not a complete bar to a suit based on copyright right infringement.  The Court states that three-year statute of limitations limits the plaintiff’s recovery only to the income from the copyrighted material for the past three years. Therefore, Paula Petrella is limited to the income from 2006 until her suit started, but her suit is not barred due to any delay.  Continue to come to LA Jewish Lawyer blog for the latest legal news.  Please call our toll-free number (855) 977-1212 for a FREE CONSULTATION about your legal matter from one of our network of attorneys.